Everyday Activities That Cause Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a common type of hearing loss that occurs when you are exposed to loud noises over a prolonged period of time. The exposure to sounds over certain decibel levels can damage the delicate hair cells inside the cochlea, which are necessary to hearing function. Once these cells are damaged, they are not capable of repairing.

This article discusses the causes, symptoms, and prevention of noise-induced hearing loss.

A man sitting on some steps wearing headphones and looking at his phone

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Noise-Induced Hearing Loss Defined

Loud noises can damage many of the delicate structures necessary for hearing.

For example, a very loud noise may rupture the eardrum or damage the tiny bones inside of the ear. Loud noises can also damage the hair cells inside of the cochlea. Fortunately, these are rare, and usually require extremely loud noises, often associated with a blast type of event.

If the eardrum or bones inside of the ear are damaged, the associated hearing loss may be temporary and treated. But if the hair cells inside of the cochlea are damaged, any subsequent hearing loss is permanent, since these specialized cells are incapable of regeneration.

Noise-induced hearing loss can occur in individuals of all ages but tends to become more common as we get older. It frequently affects individuals who have occupations where they are exposed to a lot of noise. This can include:

  • People in the military
  • Workers who use heavy equipment, such as backhoes, or work with jackhammers
  • Carpenters who frequently use power saws
  • Musicians who play or work in concert venues

How Common Is Noise-Induced Hearing Loss?

NIHL affects 12.5% of children between the ages of 6 and 19, and 17% of adults between the ages of 20 and 69.

Noise Measurement

Decibels are units of measurement used to measure the intensity of sound waves.

On the decibel scale, silence (no sound) would measure close to 0 decibels (dB). The higher up the decibel scale at which a sound is measured, the more intense the sound wave is (or louder the noise). The decibel scale is a logarithmic scale, so small changes in decibel levels can represent a large change in the level of sound.

Sounds over certain decibel levels are more likely to cause NIHL.

Symptoms

Symptoms of NIHL may come on gradually or suddenly, depending on the type of noise exposure.

If you are exposed to slightly higher than healthy noise levels over a prolonged period of time, you might not even notice a gradual loss of hearing. If, however, you are exposed to something like an explosion, the hearing loss and other symptoms will come on quite suddenly.

Symptoms of NIHL include:

  • Muffled or distorted sound
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear

If you have a ruptured eardrum, you may have some bleeding and pain from the ear initially, and may experience some dizziness. If you suspect you have a ruptured eardrum, be sure to keep your ear dry and see your healthcare provider, as there are precautions you should take to prevent further damage.

Temporary vs. Permanent Hearing Damage

Some NIHL may be temporary, but once the delicate hair cells inside the cochlea are damaged, any associated hearing loss is permanent.

If you are exposed to a very loud noise, such as an explosion or gunshot, you may experience both temporary and permanent hearing loss if it leads to a ruptured eardrum. You will initially have quite a bit of hearing loss, but the eardrum is capable of healing. However, if the tiny bones in your ear are damaged, they may or may not be able to be repaired.

Even once these structures have healed, however, it is likely that you will have at least some damage to the hair cells in your cochlea, which are incapable of regeneration.

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss Decibels

The decibel scale for noise-induced hearing loss is as follows:

  • 110–150 decibels: Permanent hearing loss may occur. It can result from fireworks, gunshots, jet planes, sirens, jackhammers, chain saws, personal music players at full volume, or music concerts.
  • 90–110 decibels: Gradual hearing loss is experienced over a period of time. It can result from motorcycles, movie theaters, or underground public transportation.
  • Below 85–90 decibels: These are considered safe levels. This range includes normal-volume conversations, whispering, and kitchen appliances. Below 75–80 decibels may be considered a more conservative level for safety.

Overlooked Causes

At Work

About 22 million workers in the United States are exposed to noise levels capable of causing NIHL each year. There is a real risk in occupations that use equipment over 85 decibels, as workers may not understand that certain tools are loud enough to damage their hearing. Things like auto mufflers, power drills, and electric screwdrivers can fall into this range.

It's important to know what you are being exposed to and to take steps to prevent NIHL when possible.

Entertainment

Many forms of entertainment involve noise levels that can lead to NIHL. These include:

  • Movie theaters
  • Live theater
  • Music concerts
  • Listening to personal music devices or the television at high volume

It's important to turn the volume down, wear earplugs at loud events, and to limit the amount of time you spend participating in these types of activities.

Preventing Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Some tips to prevent NIHL include:

  • Familiarize yourself with the decibel level of noises you may be exposed to
  • Turn down the volume on televisions and music players
  • Wear earplugs or try to distance yourself from loud noise

Monitoring Children

Some personal music players are designed with volume levels that will not go above an unsafe level. If your child listens to a personal music device that does not have these safeguards, make sure you talk to them about the dangers of listening to music too loudly and monitor appropriately.

When you are unable to prevent your child from exposure to sounds over 90 decibels, you can provide them with earmuffs or earplugs to protect their hearing.

Hearing Aids and Other Treatment

The most common treatment for NIHL is hearing aids.

Hearing aids are devices that can be worn behind the ear or just inside the ear canal, which amplify sounds so they can be better heard.

In severe cases, hearing aids may not be effective for NIHL and a cochlear implant may be a better option. A cochlear implant is a surgically placed device with multiple parts, including a:

  • Microphone
  • Speech processor
  • Receiver
  • Electrode array

Unlike a hearing aid, a cochlear implant bypasses damaged parts of the ear and directly stimulates the auditory nerve.

Working with a speech-language pathologist or similar healthcare professional can help to improve your communication and social skills and better navigate life.

Summary

Noise-induced hearing loss is extremely common and can affect people of all ages. It is caused by exposure to loud noises, such as explosions, gunshots, construction equipment, and loud music.

NIHL can be prevented by limiting the amount of time you are exposed to loud noises. Some NIHL is permanent but can be treated with hearing aids or cochlear implants. Working with a speech-language pathologist may help to minimize the symptoms of NIHL.

A Word From Verywell

Preventing noise-induced hearing loss from occurring is crucial, since it is common and often permanent. Untreated NIHL has even been linked to social isolation and depression in some people. However, working with your healthcare provider can offer adequate treatments to improve your quality of life and your ability to communicate with others.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is noise-induced hearing loss reversible?

    Some NIHL is reversible, such as that caused by a ruptured eardrum. However, once the delicate hair cells inside the cochlea become damaged, they cannot be replaced and subsequent hearing loss is irreversible.

  • Are noise-canceling headphones bad for your ears?

    Using noise-canceling headphones to listen to music at appropriate decibel levels or during everyday activities is not harmful to your hearing. However, using noise-canceling headphones in place of sound-blocking devices, which are more effective, can result in NIHL. For example, if you are exposed to loud noises at work, it is not appropriate to wear noise-canceling headphones in lieu of approved hearing protection devices, such as ear plugs. Listening to noise-canceling headphones at volume levels greater than about 85 decibels can be harmful to your hearing.

  • What are the worst noises for your ears?

    Sounds over 120 decibels can cause immediate pain and injury to your ears. Examples of sounds over this level include firecrackers, sirens within close range, gunshots, or explosions.

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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