Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Overview

Hearing loss caused by noise can occur in people of any age. It may happen suddenly or gradually. How soon it happens depends on the source and intensity of the noise.

Whether a noise is harmful depends on how loud it is and how long you're around it.

Noise can affect hearing in several ways.

  • On-the-job (occupational) noise is one of the most common sources of harmful noise. That's mainly because you are around it all day for years. For instance, if you work in construction or in a factory, or you are in the military, you may be around harmful noise for several hours each day.
  • A sudden, extremely loud sound, such as an explosion, a gunshot, or a firecracker close to the ear, can damage any of the structures in the ear. When this happens, it can cause immediate, severe, and often permanent hearing loss. This type of injury often requires medical attention right away.
  • Loud sounds (like a rock concert) can cause a temporary ringing and hearing loss. Sounds may also seem muffled. These effects usually don't last more than a few hours. But they may sometimes last several days or weeks.
  • Repeated, frequent exposure to loud or moderately loud sounds over a long period of time (often years) can cause permanent hearing loss. But this kind of hearing loss can almost always be prevented. These sounds include recreation and daily activities such as:
    • High-volume music.
    • The noise of power tools, like chainsaws or electric drills.
    • The noise from lawn mowers, household appliances (such as blenders and vacuum cleaners), and vehicles (such as snowmobiles and motorcycles).

How does noise-induced hearing loss develop?

To be heard, sound energy has to be strong enough to bend tiny hair cells in the cochlea, a part of the inner ear. The force of loud noise can damage these hair cells. A small amount of damage may have no effect on hearing. But with repeated exposure to noise, more of the hair cells are damaged, causing hearing loss.

Noise-induced hearing loss usually affects both ears. But one ear may be affected more than the other if you've had repeated, long-term exposure to a loud sound that always comes from the same direction. An example is gunfire that's always near the same ear.

Credits

Current as of: December 2, 2020

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Charles M. Myer III MD - Otolaryngology