We experience sound in diverse forms in our environment, and this happens on a daily basis. Sounds from the radio and television, traffic, and household appliances are common examples. Usually, they are at a safe level that doesn’t damage hearing.
However, sound is harmful when it becomes too loud. The sound may be momentary or long-lasting and loud, either way, it can damage some sensitive structures within the inner ear. This can result in NIHL (noise-induced hearing loss).
Loud noises can damage nerves, membranes, hair cells, and different parts of the ear. As a result, the affected person may experience permanent or temporary hearing loss. Read on to learn how this occurs so you can prevent it.
How the Human Ear Hears Sound
Sound waves (vibrations) reach the ear and we recognize them as music, speech, or other forms of sound. Below is a detailed explanation of how the human ear hears sound.
1. The Outer Ear
This is the part that is visible to the eyes. It serves as a funnel for sound waves to travel into our ear canal. These waves go down to the eardrum.
2. The Middle Ear
When the waves reach the eardrum, it vibrates and sends the vibrations to 3 little bones inside the middle section of the ear. The bones will amplify the vibrations, then move them to our inner ear.
3. The Inner Ear
This part contains a structure that takes the shape of a snail. It contains a fluid known as the cochlea. The sound vibrations will create some waves inside the fluid. When the waves get to their peak, the thin hair cells in the ear will bend.
This action converts the sound vibration into an electrical signal. The thin hair cells are known as stereocilia. They are receptors for sound detection.
4. Auditory Nerve
This nerve transports the electrical signal from our inner ear to our brain. This action interprets the signal as a type of sound that we can recognize as well as understand. You may want to watch this video to get a visual representation of how sound moves to the brain.
Noise vs Sound
Sound is defined as what we can hear when certain vibrations travel from a source through the air and get to our ears. Noise, on the other hand, is defined as an unwanted or unappreciated sound.
It could be loud feedback from the amplifier in a concert, loud voices at the new hip restaurant, some piped-in songs, or roars from a lawnmower. The world has become really noisy and noise pollution has made it to the list of public health hazards.
What is Noise-Induced Hearing Loss?
This is a permanent loss of hearing caused by listening to loud sounds over an extended period. It can also be temporary when you expose yourself to loud noises within a short time like an explosion or a gunshot. The more time you spend in areas with loud noises, the higher your chances of experiencing hearing loss.
Whether you will experience hearing loss from loud noises depends on the pitch, loudness, and duration of your exposure to noise. Sound loudness (measured in dB or decibels) is related to the period of exposure. A very loud sound does not take so much time before the damage happens.
For instance, if you are exposed to 85 decibels of noise for 8 hours every day, your ears will damage over time. Also, the following can damage hearing after a short while:
- Using power devices (around 100 decibels)
- Hearing gunshots (140 – 170 decibels)
- Attending live concerts (120 decibels)
- Listening to loud music from a headset (110 decibels)
Are There Symptoms of Hearing Loss Due to Noise?
Most times, we do not notice that noise can be damaging because we are already exposed to it. Loss of hearing is hardly painful, and the symptoms are quite vague. They include the following:
- A ringing sensation in the ear(s) that you will only notice when the place becomes quiet.
- Speech that appears to be far away or muffled.
- Feelings of fullness or pressure inside the ear(s).
- Other people say that you are shouting or talking loudly.
The symptoms may disappear after some days, hours, or minutes of moving away from the point of exposure. Now, when this happens, most people simply assume that the ears have returned to normal, but this isn’t true.
Even when you no longer experience the symptoms, the exposure has damaged some thin hair cells in your inner ear. Your hearing will only bounce back if there are enough healthy hair cells left. If most cells were destroyed and you were exposed to the noise repeatedly, the hearing loss may become permanent.
One of the first signs of hearing loss due to noise exposure is when you cannot hear a high-pitched sound like the humming of a bird. Another sign is when you are in a crowded place or a place with different background noise and you cannot understand speech.
If this damage continues, your hearing will further decline, making it difficult to hear and understand low-pitched sounds. You may want to visit https://www.healthyhearing.com/help/hearing-loss/symptomsto read more about the symptoms of hearing loss.
How Do You Know When Noise is Too Loud?
The following red flags indicate that noise is too loud:
- If you are wearing a headset and the person next to you can hear the sounds coming from it.
- If a person standing less than 1 meter away is talking to you and you cannot understand what they are saying.
- If you must shout so people can hear you above a noise.
Are There Other Effects of Hearing Loud Noises?
Apart from resulting in hearing loss, loud noises have other harmful effects. They are:
1. Brain Inflammation
In recent times, experts have realized that loud noises can damage more than the ears. It can hurt the fragile nerves that transport electrical vibrations from the thin hair calls in the inner ear to the brain.
This can cause inflammatory reactions inside the brain. Therefore, researchers are suggesting that loss of hearing is linked to the loss of cognitive skills like dementia.
2. Mood Darkening
Imagine working in an environment where the smoke alarm goes off constantly. It will certainly ruin your mood. This also happens when you work in a place where you cannot escape unwanted noise. Anxiety and irritability become worse in noisy places.
Such locations create more background noise within the affected person’s brain. This makes identifying triggers or calming techniques for anxiety difficult.
3. Weakens the Immune System
You do not just hear a loud sound and instantly get flu. But your overall health quality diminishes as you expose yourself to noise daily. This can affect your total well-being.
Ever heard about stress hormones? They increase blood sugar and blood pressure while reducing the body’s immunity against diseases. Apart from noise exposure, anything that triggers the production of stress hormones increases your chances of catching a cold or infection. This is also related to chronic health conditions like stomach ulcers and diabetes.
4. Reduces the Ability to Focus
When we want to study, we always look for a quiet and peaceful place. This is not a coincidence because staying in a noisy environment does not encourage concentration. Your brain will focus more on trying to filter the loud noise.
The extra work your brain does takes away precious energy from very important tasks like problem-solving and focus. Also, people who work in noisy places are less motivated and more tired to work compared to those in peaceful workplaces.
5. Difficulty in Sleeping at Night
We already know that loud sounds distract the brain. This translates into difficulty in relaxing and falling asleep. Also, noise from your environment can affect your sleep quality after you manage to drift off.
When you do not get good sleep at night, you will wake up groggy and unprepared for the new day. Scientists have linked poor sleep to health issues like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
6. Difficulty in Conceiving a Baby
Loud noises can affect fertility in men and women. Even in pregnancy, noise exposure can result in birth defects, premature birth, and miscarriage. You may want to click here to read about it.
How to Diagnose Hearing Loss
If you think or feel that you are experiencing hearing loss, your healthcare provider can carry out a hearing test. If the result indicates that you really are experiencing loss of hearing, you need to see an audiologist, a professional in hearing loss and ear care. Or you may see an otolaryngologist, a medical doctor that is specially trained in hearing and ear disorders.
These professionals will do more specialized tests to determine the degree of hearing loss (whether it is profound, mild, or moderate). They will also identify the frequency (sound pitch: low sound or high sound) at which you are experiencing the problem. For instance, the problem may affect low frequencies like the sound from bass drums or high frequencies like the chirping of birds.
Generally, loss of hearing is progressive, which means it can happen over an extended period. As a result, you may not notice that anything is happening. The moment you notice that you cannot hear clearly in a crowded place, you may need to take a hearing test.
Can You Prevent or Avoid Hearing Loss Caused by Noise?
You can prevent or avoid hearing loss caused by noise by following these simple steps:
1. Reduce Your Level of Noise Exposure
This is important especially for those whose workplaces are noisy (due to the use of heavy machinery). It also affects those who must pass through noisy traffic before and after work. You can protect your ears using special earmuffs if you are handling machines or are around them. Also, you can reduce noise exposure by choosing a quiet leisure activity instead of a noisy one.
2. Always Wear Earplugs in Noisy Areas
Earplugs are cheap, disposable foams that you can buy in any drugstore. They can prevent about 25 decibels of sound from reaching the ear. This can make a difference between safe and dangerous noise levels.
It is important to wear them always. You can wear them to concerts; when operating power tools, leaf blowers, or lawnmowers; riding motorcycles or snowmobiles; traveling in a loud motorized vehicle.
3. Use Materials That Absorb Sound to Reduce the Level of Noise at Work and at Home
You can place rubber mats under computer printers and kitchen appliances to reduce their noise level. Carpeting and curtains can also reduce noise indoors. And double-glazed windows, as well as storm windows, can prevent the noise outdoors from entering your workplace or home.
4. Avoid Using Several Loud Machines at a Time
You can try to reduce the volume of your television set, radio, and headset. If loudness has become a habit, then you must break it immediately.
5. Do Not Attempt Drowning Out Unwanted Sounds with Another Sound
If you are in traffic, it won’t be wise to increase the volume of your headset or car radio. Also, while vacuuming, do not increase the volume of your television.
6. Check Your Hearing
If you work in noisy areas or are exposed to noise regularly, you need to take a hearing test.
Is There a Treatment for Noise-Induced Hearing Loss?
When it comes to hearing loss, there’s no permanent cure. However, an obvious treatment is to avoid exposing yourself to noise. It will stop the problem from worsening.
You can also use a hearing aid to hear properly, but this depends on the level of the hearing loss. A hearing aid is a device worn on the ear to amplify sound. If the hearing loss is profound, your doctor may recommend a cochlear implant to take care of the problem.
This implant is an electronic device that takes the place of the inner ear that is already damaged. It functions with the help of electrodes. The electrodes will be implanted in the inner ear via surgery. They will help to transport sound vibrations to the brain.
Loud noises are not healthy, whether momentary or for an extended period. They can affect our hearing, speech, and other aspects of our well-being. The best way to prevent loss of hearing is to stay away from loud sounds.