Do you have a hard time hearing after a night out with friends? Have you been working in a noisy environment for years and now you can’t hear? Did a sudden loud noise make you lose the ability to hear? You might be suffering from noise-induced hearing loss.
According to the national institute of deafness and communication disorders, over 15% of Americans suffer from hearing loss caused by exposure to loud noises.
What is the noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL)?
This is a hearing disorder characterized by gradual, progressive loss of hearing over time due to exposure to loud noises.
To understand how hearing loss comes about, you need to understand how hearing works. Sound waves travel through the ear canal to the eardrum where they send vibrations to the ossicles: incus, malleus, and stapes.
The ossicles then amplify and transmit the sounds to the fluid in the cochlea. The cochlear fluids bend the tiny hair cell receptors, triggering electrical signals in the auditory nerve, that travels to the brain.
The brain then translates the signals into the sounds that you understand and perceive.
When the sounds are too loud, the vibrations get larger, increasing the fluid motion on the cochlea to the extent it breaks the hair cells that are irreplaceable. Damaged hair cells can’t trigger electrical signals to the brain thus you can’t perceive or understand the different sounds.
Noise-induced hearing loss can be sudden or gradual. For example, if you work in a workshop without the right protective gear you are more likely to suffer NIHL after a few years.
You can also develop the condition in just a few minutes. For example, when you exposed to extremely loud noises such as those of a gunshot right by your ear. It will take only a second and your hearing will be permanently damaged.
Who is at risk from HIHL?
Unfortunately, we are all at the risk of developing the condition. Of course, you have high chances of suffering from the condition if you work in a noisy sector such as manufacturing, construction, or farming. You are also at more risk if you live in extremely noisy neighborhoods.
Both young and old can develop the condition. The older ones develop it from working in noisy environments, while the young ones, due to listening to loud music. How many times have you come across teenagers blasting loud music in their earbuds?
While they don’t realize it, they are doing more than simply enjoying their favorite music—they are also damaging their hearing.
What causes NIHL?
The condition comes about due to two main reasons: occupational and recreational exposure.
The workplace is the most common origin for NIHL among adults. The jobs with the highest risk of noise exposure are:
Agriculture: When you work in an agriculture-related arena, you deal with tractors, grain dryers, combine harvesters, crop-dusting aircraft, orchard sprayers, and many others. Most of these machines make noise between 80 and 115 decibels.
The noise not only comes from the machines, animals also make it. For example, pig squeals make between 85 and 115 dB which causes hearing loss when you are exposed for a long time.
Mining: Did you know half of the people working in the mining industry suffer from hearing loss by the age of 50? This is because they are constantly exposed to explosion sounds.
Construction and carpentry: The center for disease and control (CDC) reports that 44% of carpenters and 48% of plumbers suffer from hearing loss by the age of 60.
Military: Military officers are always exposed to bombs, artillery fire, aircraft, and other sources of noise. A 2009 study done by the Guardian, 69% or two-thirds of the marine commandos returning from Afghanistan were affected by NIHL.
These are the things you do for fun that expose you to high noise levels. The activities that expose you to high noise levels are: shooting at a firing range, snowmobiling, hunting, riding motorcycles, listening to music at extremely high volume, and regularly attending noisy concerts.
What are the symptoms of NIHL?
In most cases, NIHL develops slowly; therefore, most people don’t recognize they are suffering from the condition until they have lost substantial levels of hearing.
At the early stages of the condition, you might find yourself cranking up the radio and TV volume as you are having a hard time hearing. You also might find yourself having a problem understanding speech in groups or when there is background noise.
As the condition gets worse, you might find yourself having problems understanding normal conversation even when in quiet, one-on-one situations.
Other signs of NIHL are:
- Having problems hearing someone talking three feet away
- Having a feeling of “fullness” in your ears after leaving a noisy area
- Ringing or buzzing (tinnitus) in your ears after you have been exposed to noise
- Difficulty understanding speech after being exposed to noise. You can hear people talking but you have a problem understanding them.
Can you prevent noise-induced hearing loss?
The good news is that it’s possible to prevent the condition from coming about. Some of the ways of preventing the condition include:
Avoiding the exposure
You need to know the noises that can damage your ears. The dangerous noise is one that is above 85 decibels. The most common sources of these noises are lawn mowers, jet engines, chainsaws, motorcycles, powerboats, and personal listening devices such as MP3 players.
The rule of thumb is, if you have to shout at someone who is within an arm’s length, the noise is most likely within this range and you should be cautious of it. If possible, you should avoid these noisy areas.
Let us be honest, it’s almost impossible to avoid the noisy environment. The good thing is, you can protect yourself from the noises by wearing hearing protection devices. Some of the best pieces are earplugs and earmuffs. For you to get the most from these pieces, ensure they fit you properly. They also should have a high noise reduction rating (NRR).
Can NIHL be treated?
Unfortunately, noise-induced hearing loss can’t be treated. Once it has developed, the condition is irreversible. Researchers are still working on solutions but there is still no viable treatment option at the moment that can restore the function of healthy ears. The best treatment at the moment is getting fitted with hearing aids.