Noise and Hearing Loss

What is noise?
Any disturbing, harmful or unwanted sound. It is the most common health hazard in the workplace.

What are the different types of noise?
Noise can be continuous or steady. Examples include lawn and power tools, vehicles, aircraft and even some music. Noise also can be impulsive or banging. Examples include weapons fire, some toys, and certain industrial machinery.

Will noise toughen my ears?
No! Noise destroys your ability to hear and to understand speech.

Can noise cause hearing loss?
Yes! Noise can cause permanent hearing loss. Our world is becoming louder, with noise almost everywhere.

How can noise damage my hearing?
The ear does a marvelous job of receiving sound waves and sending them to the brain. Your ear is divided into three parts.

  • The outer ear directs sound waves into the ear canal to the eardrum, setting it into motion.
  • The middle ear contains three tiny bones (the smallest in the body) which vibrate and pass the sound to the inner ear.
  • The inner ear contains fluid which moves because of the sound waves.

Thousands of tiny hair cells are in a fluid-filled chamber and respond to the vibrations by passing information along the hearing nerve to the brain. Noise exposure can destroy these tiny hair cells and eliminate a critical link to the brain.
Often noise will not destroy all hearing but instead may attack only certain higher frequencies. People with noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) most often report that they can hear fine, they just don’t understand. In fact, they usually think everyone else is mumbling. 

Hearing problems in the outer and middle ears are usually medically treatable. However, there is NO proven medical cure for noise-induced hearing loss in the inner ear.

When and where can noise damage my hearing?
Noise can damage your hearing at home and during recreational activities. Noise, in combination with some chemical exposures, can increase hearing damage, for example toluene, lead, carbon monoxide, etc. Noise does NOT have to cause pain or bleeding to do damage.

Am I exposed to damaging noise?
Whether you are at work or play, noise can damage your hearing. Over 20 million Americans are exposed to environmental noise that can destroy hearing. Noise can place your hearing at risk if you use radio stereo headsets, guns, power tools, lawnmowers, car stereo systems, household appliances or  motorcycles, to name a just a few. Sometimes you are exposed to hazardous noise by just going to a concert or commuting in heavy traffic.

A good rule of thumb is that if you have to raise your voice to talk to people standing only three feet away, you are in a noise-hazardous area that can damage your hearing! You should turn down the volume of the noise, remove yourself from the area or get some hearing protection.

How much noise is too much?
The amount of noise that will cause a hearing loss depends primarily on both the intensity of the noise AND the length of time you are exposed to the noise. Other factors such as your health or the frequency of the sound can also influence how the noise can damage your ears.

For example, you can experience sudden hearing loss with just one exposure to an extremely loud noise. However, noise-induced hearing loss usually occurs gradually from repeated or long exposure to loud noise. Even though noise-induced hearing loss is painless, it is permanent.

Noise is measured in decibels (dB). The louder the noise, the higher the decibel level. Any sounds greater than 80 dB are considered potentially hazardous.

What is a hearing conservation program?
A hearing conservation program is designed to prevent noise-induced hearing loss. Usually, hearing conservation programs identify the noise hazard, investigate engineering controls to reduce the noise, monitor hearing and provide both appropriate hearing protection and important health education about noise and its hazards to hearing.

What can I do?
Protect yourself by getting your hearing tested by an audiologist who can work with you or your company to design the best program to prevent noise-induced hearing loss. Wear hearing protection (earplugs or earmuffs) when exposed to noise hazards. Your audiologist can recommend the best type of hearing protection for your situation.

What are the warning signs?
As we mentioned earlier, if you have to raise your voice to be heard, you are probably in a noise-hazardous area. Here are some additional red flags:

  • Pain or ringing in your ears after exposure to noise.
  • Speech sounds muffled or music sounds dull after leaving a noisy area.
  • You can’t hear someone who is three feet away from you when you’re in a noisy environment.