How to Prevent Noise Induced Hearing Loss

Ok. I have to be real about this.

Back in the day, before I became an audiologist, I did some really unkind, unhealthy things to my hearing.  Pretty please, promise you won’t tell my 14 year old.  You know, as the saying goes  “do as I say not as I did.”

I attended some REALLY loud indoor concerts – Nine Inch Nails, Bowie, Pink Floyd.

In college I would lay on the floor with my head sandwiched between speakers and play Genesis’s entire Trick of the Tail album. Loud.  Then some Crosby Stills Nash & Young. Loud. And, oh yeah, can’t forget, Prince’s epic 1999 (still can’t believe he’s gone). That was even louder.

I remember leaving one show at the old Coliseum in Richfield and feeling as if my hearing was muffled and laughing as I asked friends, “huh, what did you say?”

Summer meant Blossom Music Center. One summer: 17 concerts on the lawn. Loud, but not quite as loud as the indoor shows.

If I only knew then what I know now.

I now know that temporarily reduced hearing after loud sound exposure has a name – Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS). I didn’t know that TTS can be a precursor to a permanent threshold shift ( PTS) in hearing.  I didn’t know that tinnitus or ringing in the head or ears is most commonly associated with hearing loss.  I didn’t know that time of exposure + overall loudness can prove to be a dangerous combination for my hearing. In high school, when my parents would holler upstairs to “TURN IT DOWN”, I just thought they were being uncool.

As a young (don’t even go there) audiologist, I began to respect my ears and hearing more. I saw how hearing loss impacted lives, jobs, and relationships.  I saw that although hearing aids offer many people with hearing loss significant benefit, the best plan was to protect my hearing.  It just mattered to me more. So, when portable music (remember the old Walkman radios and CD players?) first became popular, I developed the Safe Sound (now known as Sound Choices) hearing conservation program for elementary aged children. Originally presented to classrooms, the student and teacher materials are now available on our website: www.chsc.org/soundchoices

Fast-forward to MP3 players. Today, it is not uncommon to see a smartphone in the hands of young children. Music, movies, and videos are more accessible, portable, devices have longer run times, and speakers are commonly worn IN THE EARS.

Some people erroneously think that it is only rock music that will cause damage. Admittedly, rock and roll is often played loud, but ANY music (country, gospel, orchestra) can cause damage if loud enough and you listen long enough.

We also now know that loud sound can impact hearing differently in some people. Some ears just seem to be more tender and fragile than others.  The problem that remains is that we don’t know who that is ahead of time.

I am more concerned than ever about the hearing of future generations. Parents and other authority figures have a hard time monitoring risky hearing behavior.  But just like we teach our children to use sunscreen to protect their skin and to brush their teeth twice a day to prevent cavities, we need to talk to them about hearing loss related to loud sound exposure. The younger they start practicing good habits, the better. And, as parents, remember to model good hearing hygiene habits when you are with them.

Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) is completely and 100% preventable.

To conserve what you have, some easy tips:

  • Limit time of exposure
  • Limit overall loudness
  • Use noise canceling earphones
  • Look for loudness limiting parental controls in devices
  • Limit noisy toys or remove the batteries
  • If someone is  arms reach away and can hear your music, it is too loud
  • In noisy places, If you have to raise your voice to be heard, it is too loud
  • Sound that causes ringing in the ears or a temporary reduction in hearing is too loud
  • Use earplugs or muffs when operating a lawnmower, snow blower or leaf blower
  • ALWAYS use hearing protection when hunting or shooting

Facts About Noise

Although the definition of “noise” may be interpreted on a personal basis, it can be described simply as unwanted sound. Unwanted sound, or noise, can result in hearing loss, which is known as noise-induced hearing loss. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) can be instantaneous and caused by just one single exposure to a very loud sound (like a firecracker or gunshot). NIHL can also be caused by cumulative exposure to loud sounds which gradually build over time to cause the hearing loss. So, even though hearing loss due to loud sound may not always be evident immediately, NIHL may be present later, in teenagers or adulthood. Any reduction in the overall lifetime noise “dose” will be good for hearing in later years.

  • Noise is one of the leading causes of hearing loss
  • Noise-induced hearing loss is permanent – but preventable
  • Continuous exposure to noise can lead to physiological changes in blood pressure, sleep, digestion, and other stress-related disorders
  • Noise-induced hearing loss typically occurs gradually and without pain
  • Continued exposure to noise above 85 decibels will eventually harm one’s hearing
  • In general, the louder the sound, the less time required before damage occurs

How Noise Affects Hearing

The cochlea is the organ of hearing.  It is shaped like a snail and is approximately the size of a nickel.  Inside the cochlea are thousands of tiny nerve endings called hair cells.  These hair cells are surrounded by fluid.  When you hear a sound, the sound vibrations cause the fluid to ripple through the cochlea and bend the hair cells, thereby activating the nerve endings.  If the sounds are very loud, the vibrations, in turn, are very strong and cause the hair cells to not only bend, but to break.  Once a hair cell is damaged in this fashion, it cannot be repaired, renewed, or replaced.

Knowing When It’s Too Loud

As a general rule, if you must raise the volume of your voice above the noise level to carry on a conversation, the noise is too loud.

Noise and Hearing Conservation

  • According to the National Center of Disease Statistics, 5.2 million children between the ages of 6-19 years have hearing loss directly related to noise exposure.
  • The Occupation Safety and Health Administration estimates that nearly 5 million Americans work in levels of noise that are potentially harmful to their hearing.

What should you do if you suspect a Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL)?  The audiologists at CHSC can assess your hearing to determine if a loss is present and make recommendations regarding hearing protection and conservation including customized noise earplugs.  To schedule an appointment with an audiologist, please contact us at 216-231-8787.