The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) describes noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) as a unique type of hearing loss that occurs due to repeated exposure to sounds above recommended decibel levels. NIHL can also occur from one-time exposure to extremely loud noises. According to the NIDCD, exposure to loud sounds can cause hearing loss by damaging sensitive structures in the inner ear.
NIHL can happen immediately, or it can take several years to develop. It can also occur in one or both ears and be a temporary or permanent condition. Unlike other types of hearing loss related to genetic or aging, however, hearing loss from noise exposure is preventable.
What Are the Statistics on NIHL?
People can develop NIHL at any age. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) a decade ago indicated that approximately six percent of the adult population in the United States has some degree of NIHL. All study participants were under the age of 70.
The study also suggested that 17 percent of people between age 12 and 19 have NIHL due to ongoing exposure to loud noise. Young adults have a higher risk of developing NIHL due to listening to loud music through headphones or earbuds and attending live concerts more than older people do.
Detecting Harmful Environments Before They Damage Hearing
Although people have varying sensitivity to noise, certain situations can cause a hearing risk to everyone. These include:
- The noise is loud enough to cause ear pain or ringing in the ears.
- People have to shout for others sitting near them to hear what they are saying due to the noise level.
- Partial or full hearing loss lasts for several hours after exposure to extremely loud noises.
Unfortunately, some people believe the common myth that repeatedly exposing themselves to loud noise will make their ears able to withstand it better. Not only is this untrue, but people who already have NIHL may not experience sounds as loudly as they did before the damage occurred. A proactive approach to preventing noise-induced hearing loss is key since few treatment options exist once it has already developed.
How to Prevent Noise-Induced Hearing Loss from Developing
The simplest thing people can do to reduce the risk of NIHL is to avoid situations that can trigger it. Since this isn’t always possible, the next best thing is to take steps to protect hearing when loud noise exposure is unavoidable. For example, people who drive in heavy city traffic every day can invest in specialty earmuffs to wear until they get to their destination or at least to quieter streets. Other ways to prevent temporary or permanent hearing damage include:
- Use materials that absorb sound at home and work such as rubber mats, carpeting, curtains, or double-paned windows.
- Wear a pair of disposable foam earplugs in noisy environments or when working with loud machinery to reduce noise intake by as much as 25 decibels. Examples of times people should always wear earplugs include when cutting the grass or using a leaf blower, riding a motorcycle, riding a snowmobile, attending concerts, using power tools, or when traveling on noisy roads.
- Don’t turn up the radio or TV to drown out unpleasant loud noises as this will only increase the likelihood of NIHL.
- Use only one loud machine at a time.
- Musicians should wearing specialized hearing devices to protect their hearing when performing
- Schedule an annual hearing check if regularly exposed to loud noise at home or work.
Symptoms Indicating NIHL Has Already Occurred
When hearing loss occurs slowly, people don’t always recognize that they have a problem and therefore don’t take precautions to protect their hearing in time. Anyone experiencing one or more of these issues shouldn’t hesitate to schedule an appointment with an audiologist for testing.
- The person with NIHL feels like people are mumbling when they are speaking with a normal pitch and tone.
- Difficulty hearing conversation when background noise is present such as at a restaurant.
- Struggling to hear the voices of women or children.
- Not being able to follow conservations at social gatherings or work meetings, thereby missing the entire context.
- Others complain that the person with NIHL speaks too loudly or turns the TV up too high.
- Pain in the ears with loud noise exposure.
Noise Induced Hearing Loss Treatment Options
The bad news about NIHL is that it isn’t possible to restore hearing after damage to the hair cells of the inner ear. However, programmable smart earbuds which are tailored to the user’s hearing loss, may well help make conversations clearer for people with mild to moderate hearing challenges or who are at the early stages of their hearing health journey.