Although they don’t hold a candle to the hearing systems of our canine friends, who can hear additional frequencies and at a greater range than we can, our ears make up an incredibly sensitive and adaptive sense. The mere fact that we can hear a baby cry from another room in the house and also enjoy a live musical performance makes our hearing systems absolutely incredible.
But with great sensitivity comes great responsibility. Hearing loss due to exposure to loud noise is a danger we have to consider as we maintain our hearing health. As the world gets louder, we must be aware of which noises have the potential to damage our hearing.
How noise impacts hearing
Our ears evolved in a much different scenario than most of us live in today. Before the industrial revolution and the invention of machines, our world was much quieter for hundreds of thousands of years. Our ears can hear and safely take in sounds between 0 and 85 decibels (the unit of measurement for sound). Many noises that exceed 85 decibels are man-made post-industrial sounds like heavy machinery, automobiles, or amplified music. Even the roar of the famous Niagara Falls is only about 95 decibels in close range.
When sounds are louder, they can cause damage to the important cells of the inner ear. These cells are sensitive, as they need to be in order to catch soft sounds like leaves rustling (20 decibels). The inner ear cells receive noise from the outside world and turn it into sound information. That sound information is then sent along the auditory nerve to the brain’s processing centers. This symphony of experience all happens in an instant and unconsciously.
When the inner ear cells become damaged, typically from the natural aging process and exposure to excessive noise, they decline and neither repair themselves nor reproduce. Instead, we have less cells and thus, less capacity to hear all the sounds of the outside world. Our brains receive less sound information and we simply hear less. When excessive volumes cause this to happen, we call the result noise-induced hearing loss.
Which decibels are dangerous
We already stated that sounds below 85 decibels are safe for human ears. When things get louder, we begin to limit our exposure to them, as duration has a lot to do with how harmful a sound is. If noise exceeds 85 decibels, one should try to limit the duration to less than eight hours. Loudness and duration of exposure are tied together in this way. As sounds become louder, the time we can be exposed shortens. For instance, when volumes reach 100 decibels (factory machinery, human voices yelling) we should limit exposure to under 15 minutes, after which we risk damage.
Some sounds are so loud that they can do instantaneous, permanent damage. This might happen in an accident or explosion (120-150 decibels). One will most likely notice resulting hearing loss immediately.
Symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss
When noise-induced hearing loss happens slowly and over time, as is often the case, the signs are much more subtle. Because when our inner ear cells decline gradually and we tend to lose frequencies first, one of the first symptoms of hearing loss is speech clarity. It will begin to seem as if everyone is always mumbling their words. You also might find that telephone conversations, without the accompanying verbal cues of face-to-face chats, are extremely difficult and fatiguing. The closed captioning function of your television may become necessary in order to enjoy programs, as dialogue will become challenging to decipher.
The process can be so gradual that we don’t even notice our hearing has changed. We will simply go along as usual, perhaps quietly coping by withdrawing from social situations and relationships. Instead, our friends and family are usually the ones to take notice of the changes in our behavior.
Taking steps to protect hearing
Even as early as Roman times, people have been trying to make their environments more quiet, using tactics like the hanging of tapestries or installations of other sound barriers. You can help to protect your ears from today’s extreme volumes by monitoring your listening environments, turning down volumes when possible and giving yourself quiet breaks in extremely noisy scenarios. You can also invest in hearing protection, like custom earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.
Treatment for noise-induced hearing loss
Although noise-induced hearing loss is irreversible, it is treatable through hearing loss solutions like hearing aids. If you think your hearing health may be impacted by excessive noise, schedule a hearing consultation today. Our team of highly trained hearing professionals will guide you through a simple hearing exam to determine whether you have any hearing loss present. Together, we’ll explore options for enhanced hearing and get you back on the path to a more enjoyable listening experience.