We’ve known for a long time that excessively loud noise can damage the human ear. During the 19th century, workers often lost their hearing because of the ear-splitting noises of the new machines ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. Today, you don’t have to be a factory worker to experience the dangers of deafening noises.
“Noise-induced hearing loss has trickled over from the workplace into the non-workplace environment,” says Michael Shinners, MD, a specialist in neurotology at NorthShore University HealthSystem.
While legislation protects workers who are subjected to noise levels that are 85 decibels or louder, we live in a daily environment where loud noises are commonplace. “The noise of a power lawn mower is 90 decibels; a motorcycle is 95 decibels; MP3 players and iPods can reach over 100 decibels; sound at music concerts can reach 110 to 115 decibels; a siren is 120 decibels; gunshots at a shooting range and firecrackers can reach 150 decibels,” he says. “Decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale, so a little difference numerically in decibels is a big difference in reality.”
The cochlea in the inner ear converts sound from acoustic energy to electrical energy, creating nerve impulses that travel to the brain where they become the sound we hear. “One quick, loud blast like an explosion or repeated, prolonged exposure to loud noise can damage the hair cells in the cochlea and cause hearing loss,” Shinners says. Exposure to loud noise can also create a temporary or permanent buzzing or ringing in the ears called tinnitus, which indicates that the inner ear has been damaged.
Shinners speaks from experience. “I’m 41, and I still have ringing in my ears from a concert I went to when I was 15,” he says. “There is currently no proven treatment for hearing loss from noise exposure or cure for tinnitus.”
Hearing loss caused by excessive noise can happen at any age. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) reports that about 15 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have hearing loss that may have been caused by exposure to loud noise at work or everyday activities. Researchers believe there may be a genetic component that makes some people more susceptible than others to noise-induced hearing loss, Shinners says.
In older adults, noise-induced hearing loss may be exacerbated by hearing loss due to aging. Some 40 percent of adults ages 55 to 74 could benefit from a hearing aid, but 80 percent of that group do not use one, according to a study in the International Journal of Audiology. Adults experiencing hearing loss who don’t use a hearing aid may become isolated because they have trouble participating in conversations and social gatherings, and they may experience anger, anxiety and depression.
Adolescents are also affected by excessive noise. As many as 16 percent of people between the ages of 12 and 19 have some hearing loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their hearing loss may be caused, in part, because they are listening to MP3 players and others devices with the volume turned up too high.
“Teenagers have the freedom to make choices about their exposure to music, videos, apps and the use of headphones and earbuds. Some of them make bad choices that can cause hearing loss and start a lifelong problem,” says George Harris, MD, a pediatric ear, nose and throat doctor at Loyola University Health System.
Noise-induced hearing loss has trickled over from the workplace into the non-workplace environment
Noise-induced hearing loss is also a growing problem among young children. “We don’t know the percentage of children with hearing loss developed from noise sources, but the incidence of hearing loss in younger children is increasing,” Harris says. “We’re seeing an increased use of headphones and earbuds for children who use tablets and smartphones. They’re great because they keep the child well-behaved and occupied, but at the same time, parents might not know if the child has increased the volume or if the volume of the sound level has changed from one window to the next.”
Hearing loss in young children can have long-term consequences, Harris says, including delays in speech and language development, poor school performance, social isolation and difficulties in succeeding later in life in school and the workforce.
While noise-induced hearing loss cannot be reversed, it can almost always be prevented. Adults who work with power tools at home, attend loud concerts and sporting events, go to the shooting range and are exposed to other loud noises should protect their ears.
“You need something different depending on the type of noise you’re exposed to,” Shinners says. “At the firing range, you want to do everything you can to not be exposed to 140 decibels. Since you don’t need to have a conversation with the person next to you, you should use noise-canceling earmuffs. At a concert, you want to be safe, but you also want to be able to hear the music, so you can use earplugs.”
Harris suggests that teens who attend concerts download a free decibel meter app to use on their smartphone. “While these kinds of decibel meters are not 100 percent accurate, teens can use them to check the sound level of the music at a concert to help them decide if they need to use earplugs to protect their hearing,” he says.
Teens can also learn from the experiences of a number of professional musicians, including Pete Townshend of The Who, Chris Martin of Coldplay and Eric Clapton, who all report having some level of noise-induced hearing loss. Because Pearl Jam’s bassist, Jeff Ament, developed permanent ringing in his ears, the rock band offers earplugs for a small donation at its concerts.
Parents of young children should take preventive measures to protect the hearing of their kids. Ear-damaging noise can exist in unexpected places, such as the loud, high-pitched hand dryers in public restrooms. “They are usually located right at the ear level of our younger patients, so we advise parents to avoid these devices whenever possible,” Harris cautions.
Parents have a wide range of choices available to protect their kids’ ears. Children can wear noise-canceling or noise-dampening earmuffs, available in different sizes for a perfect fit, when they attend loud concerts or sporting events, especially motor sports, where noise levels are high. “Some parents think their kids won’t wear them,” Harris says, “but when children try them, they are fine with them.”
In some circumstances children might wear protective earplugs, which range from simple foam in a variety of densities to hard polymers. Harris says that audiologists at Loyola can custom-make polymer earplugs for a child in a choice of colors and attach them together with a colorful lanyard. “You can jazz them up and make them fun so the child can enjoy having ones of their own,” Harris says. “It’s much better than having to put a hearing aid on a 14-year-old who has lost all high-frequency hearing.”
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.