The causes of hearing loss are as varied as the lives we lead. Even a person who has lived the quietest life is likely to eventually have hearing loss of some kind. Simply by living and experiencing the world, our sense of hearing incurs some damage. However, the hearing risks for those who are exposed to louder sounds are much greater than those who work quiet jobs in pastoral settings.
Among those at the greatest risk are workers in heavy industry and those who expose themselves to “recreational noise.” Let’s take this opportunity to understand how noise-induced hearing loss happens, the common causes, and what you can do to prevent it.
What is noise-induced hearing loss?
Although hearing ability can be damaged by simple sounds from everyday life, the risk of hearing loss is greater as the sounds become louder and for a longer duration. Deep within the inner ear, the cochlea of the ear canal is where the action happens to transform sound vibrations of pressure from the air into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain. This remarkable function is made possible by tiny hair-like cells called stereocilia. When they are moved with waves of sound pressure, these cells experience a chemical reaction that creates an electrical stimulus perceived by the brain. What a remarkable human function!
However, when the stereocilia are exposed to very loud sound for too long a time, they can become damaged, weakened, or permanently bent. Noise-induced hearing loss is precisely what happens when these hair-like cells are damaged.
Who is at risk for noise-induced hearing loss?
Beyond everyday exposure to sound, those who live and work with noise are at a much greater risk for permanent damage. Those who work with very loud machinery are required to have protections in place to keep them from incurring noise exposure for too long during a shift.
Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for maintaining standards of hearing protection, not all employers abide by these rules. Particularly in small places of business that do not have heavy machinery, the noises can be damagingly loud while also going skirting regulations. Some occupations that carry a risk of noise-induced hearing loss might come as a surprise, including those who work in restaurants, sporting facilities, and even beauty salons.
Beyond those who are exposed to noise through the working day, many others put themselves at risk through a relatively recent phenomenon called “recreational noise.” In addition to the voluntary exposure to noise in music venues, night clubs, and at loud sporting events, another device is lurking in our midst threatening hearing loss: earbuds. Along with over-the-ear headphones, these units can project very loud sound into our ears for extended periods of time, and the interest we have in the sound makes it possible to endure damagingly loud sound for far too long. Particularly when earbuds or headphones are competing with the sound from the environment, such as transportation noise, the combination of effects can do serious and permanent damage.
How can you prevent noise-induced hearing loss?
If you have ever noticed your ears ringing after a shift at work or feeling like your hearing was muted when you walked out, it is time to get serious about hearing protection. Even the simple disposable foam ear plugs will go a long way to prevent damage, but you can also use more advanced custom-fitted hearing protection. The benefit of professionally fitted earplugs is the ability to block damaging sound while allowing you to hear the frequencies of voices.
Particularly in the workplace, it is essential to preserve your communication ability, and custom-fitted protection is tailored to make this possible. The other important thing you can do to prevent noise-induced hearing loss is to limit your use of earbuds and headphones. Though you might enjoy listening to music or a podcast on your commute home on a train, the volume needed to combat the noise of the train itself is incredibly loud. If you need to listen to something at this level, make sure your exposure is short, such as the audio associated with a brief video. If you limit the time of loud exposure, you will be able to limit the risk of damage, as well.