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Understanding Noise-Induced Hearing Loss: Causes, Prevention & Management

Kimberley Bradshaw - Head of Marketing
Written By:
Kimberley Bradshaw

Head of Customer Content Experience

David - Audiologist for Hearing Aid UK
Medically Reviewed By:
David

Audiology Expert at Hearing Aid UK

Updated: 31st May 2024
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

What is noise-induced hearing loss and can it cause permanent damage?

 

Noise-induced hearing loss affects millions

Noise-induced hearing loss occurs when loud sounds damage the inner ear's hair cells, leading to permanent hearing impairment. Common causes include prolonged exposure to loud music, machinery, or sudden explosive noises. Symptoms include difficulty hearing high-pitched sounds and understanding speech. Prevention involves using ear protection in noisy environments.

In this article we will discuss the causes, effects, and preventive measures of noise-induced hearing loss.  Learn how to protect your hearing and manage existing noise-induced hearing loss.

 

What is noise-induced hearing loss?

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is an increasingly common condition affecting millions worldwide. Imagine leaving a loud concert with your ears ringing and struggling to hear conversations clearly the next day. This temporary experience can become permanent with repeated exposure to loud noises.

Noise-induced hearing loss occurs when exposure to loud sounds causes damage to the inner ear, specifically the hair cells within the cochlea. Loud noises can overstimulate and damage the hair cells in the cochlea.

Unlike other cells in the body, hair cells in the inner ear do not regenerate, meaning any damage is permanent. Repeated exposure to high-decibel sounds accelerates the loss of these cells, leading to hearing impairment.

 

The physiology of hearing and noise-induced hearing loss

How can loud noise damage my hearing?  To understand NIHL, it’s crucial to understand how normal hearing functions. Sound waves enter the ear and travel through the ear canal to the eardrum, causing it to vibrate. 

These vibrations are transmitted through the ossicles in the middle ear to the cochlea in the inner ear, where hair cells convert them into electrical signals sent to the brain.  When these hair cells become damaged, such as by loud and persistent noises, the signal is interrupted and our hearing suffers.

 

Causes of noise-induced hearing loss

NIHL is primarily caused by prolonged exposure to loud noises. This can occur in various settings, including workplaces with heavy machinery, concerts, and even through personal audio devices like headphones.  Both continuous or sudden intense noise can lead to the deterioration of the delicate structures in the ear.

 

Is noise-induced hearing loss permanent?

Unlike other forms of hearing impairment, NIHL can be both temporary and permanent.  Temporary hearing loss usually recovers after a few hours or days, while permanent hearing loss results from sustained damage to the hair cells, which do not regenerate.

 

 noise induced hearing loss

Symptoms and Diagnosis of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

How is noise-induced hearing loss diagnosed?

 

What are the signs of noise-induced hearing loss?

The early signs of NIHL often include tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and difficulty understanding speech, especially against background noise.  People may also experience a muffled sound perception, where sounds seem less clear and distinct. Ignoring these symptoms can lead to progressive and irreversible hearing loss.

 

Can an audiologist diagnose noise-induced hearing loss?

Yes, audiologists diagnose NIHL through a series of hearing tests that measure the ability to hear various frequencies and volumes.  Common tests include pure-tone audiometry, speech recognition tests, and otoacoustic emissions testing, which assess the functioning of the hair cells in the cochlea.

 

Noise management and how to protect your hearing

What can I do to protect my hearing?  Reducing exposure to harmful noise levels can help protect your hearing. This could involve strategies such as:

  • Taking breaks from noisy environments,
  • Using noise-cancelling headphones,
  • Keep your music volume levels low, especially when using headphones, and don’t ignore your phone if it gives you the audio levels are too high warning!

 

Quick prevention tips:  What type of hearing protection is available? 

  • Earplugs: Disposable or reusable earplugs can reduce noise levels significantly. If you are working in a loud environment custom-moulded earplugs can provide a better fit, and therefore more effective noise reduction.
  • Ear protectors: Over-the-ear protection that can be worn alone or in conjunction with earplugs for double protection in extremely loud environments.

 

Are you at risk of noise-induced hearing loss in the workplace?

What health and safety measures should be taken in noisy environments?  Statistics show that occupational hearing loss is a significant issue, with many workers experiencing some degree of hearing impairment over their careers.

Certain professions have a higher risk of NIHL due to constant exposure to loud noises. These include construction workers, musicians, military personnel, and factory workers.

 

If I work in a noisy environment does my employer need to supply ear protection?

Yes, if you work in a noisy job, your employer is legally required under the Control of Noise at Work Regulations (2005) to protect your hearing, which includes ensuring you have proper hearing protection.

  • Employers must assess and document noise levels at the workplace, and if exposure reaches 80 decibels (dB), they are obligated to act.
  • In noisy environments like construction or manufacturing an indication of high noise levels includes needing to shout to communicate with someone two meters away.
  • Employers must also provide hearing protection in jobs involving loud sounds through headphones such as in music venues or theatres.

 

 noise induced hearing loss

 Noise-Induced Hearing Loss Treatment and Symptom Management

What should I do if I am diagnosed with noise-induced hearing loss?

 

While no cure exists for permanent NIHL, hearing aids can help manage the condition

If you think you have noise-induced hearing loss or are showing the symptoms, an audiologist can test your hearing, and let you know the level of damage and whether it is permanent or temporary.  They will also recommend the best hearing aids for your condition, lifestyle, and hearing requirements.

As well as using hearing aids, there are small, easy, daily adjustments you can make, follow our tips below to aid communication and improve quality of life.

 

Tips for living with NIHL

If you have been diagnosed by your audiologist with NIHL, the first step will be to start using hearing aids. Hearing aids can amplify sounds, filter background noise, and make communication easy again.

If you have lost certain frequencies due to noise and are suffering from low-frequency hearing loss or high-frequency hearing loss, the hearing aids can be programmed to suit your personal hearing needs and restore sound at the frequencies lost.  Other tips include:

  • Face the person you're speaking with.
  • Reduce background noise where possible, for example, if you are struggling to hear at work request a designated quiet space for one-to-one meetings.
  •  Use visual cues to improve communication.
  • Assistive listening devices, such as for your TV, and smartphone apps can also improve your quality of life by giving you more control over your hearing.

 

Noise-induced hearing loss conclusion

Understanding the causes, effects, and preventive measures of noise-induced hearing loss is essential for protecting your hearing. By taking proactive steps to reduce noise exposure and seeking early intervention, you can prevent or manage NIHL effectively. 

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