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Our ears evolved for many thousands of years in a much quieter world. Today’s environment is exponentially louder and it’s no surprise that damaged hearing health as a result of exposure to excessive noise is one of the leading causes of acquired hearing loss.
What is noise-induced hearing loss?
While the most common type of hearing loss remains that which occurs because of aging, the damage inflicted by noise exposure runs a close second. In fact, many folks have a mix of the two.
Noise-induced hearing loss happens with the exposure to excessive noise. This can happen all at once — such as in an explosion or accident when incredibly loud sounds instantaneously damage the tissues and cells of the inner ear. In these cases, the person affected will probably be aware of pain in the ear and an immediate change in their ability to clearly hear the sounds in their environment. Noise may sound muffled as though they are underwater.
In a more subtle way, hearing loss due to noise exposure can also happen slowly and over time. In these instances, the noise will probably be loud enough to be irritating but not immediately painful. The person probably won’t be aware that any damage has occurred and it is the build up of these minute injuries to the ear structures that substantially degrades hearing health over time.
How noise damages hearing health
The inner ear cells are sensitive structures that play an important role in hearing. They collect noise from the world around us and translate it into sound information in the form of electrical signals. These signals are transmitted to the brain via the auditory nerve where the brain’s processing centers make meaning of the sound information.
Loud noise — each and every time we expose the ear to it — can progressively degrade the health of the inner ear cells. We are born with a finite number and they do not repair or reproduce. Instead, when we lose these cells, we are left with a decreased ability to collect the full spectrum of sound.
Hearing loss of this nature results in difficulty understanding what people are saying. The earliest symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss continue to be trouble with speech clarity and it’s most commonly identified by friends and family who notice changes in behavior.
How loud is too loud
Our ears can handle sounds that measure up to 85 decibels with little trouble or harm. To put that into perspective, conversation typically measures 60-65 decibels. Experts agree that volumes beyond 85 decibels should be limited because they will lead to immediate cell damage and future hearing loss.
Of course, many everyday sounds exceed this volume and so the equation to keep in mind is to limit the time you are exposed. The louder the sound, the less time you should remain.
This can be easier said than done. Between 85 and 90 decibels, it’s recommended to limit exposure time to two hours. Decibels exceeding 100 should be limited to 15 minutes. And exposure to sounds over 110 decibels should be kept to a few minutes. A movie in a theater, live music and sporting events can all easily reach volumes over 100 decibels.
Protect your hearing
One way to protect your hearing today is to develop a habit of awareness of your sound environments. If your ears begin to hurt, always step away from the noise and give yourself a break before deciding if risking your hearing health is worth your presence. Interventions like noise-canceling headphones, ear plugs and protective ear wear can help keep you safe in noisy soundscapes.
Healthy listening habits
Choose healthy listening habits for yourself and model them for the young people in your life. This is especially important as ear buds become ubiquitous and we spend more and more time online and plugged in.
Keep your volume at the midway mark as much as possible and never exceed more than two-thirds of maximum volume.
Use apps on your smartphone and other devices to monitor your noise exposure. Many will tell you, in decibels, the average sound outputs you subject your ears to. If you wear earbuds or headphones to engage in school or work for long periods of time, schedule frequent ‘quiet’ breaks throughout the day to give your brain and ears a much-needed rest.