Excessive noise exposure damages the delicate hair cells in the inner ear, not dissimilar to the effect of age on the ear (accelerated “wear and tear”). This damage often results in permanent, sensorineural hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Hazardous noise exposures can occur on the job, but also in common recreational activities. Hearing loss prevention thus requires diligence and sensitivity to situations where hearing can be put at risk:
Beware of recreational sources of hazardous noise like firearms, firecrackers, power tools, music concerts, dance clubs, NASCAR, sporting events, motorcycles, motorboats, snowmobiles, powerboats, and “boom cars”. See our noise thermometer which shows you the relative risk associated with exposure to various noise environments.
The risk for hearing loss due to exposure to noise is especially high among factory and heavy industry workers, transportation workers, military personnel, construction workers, miners, farmers, firefighters, police officers, musicians, and entertainment industry professionals.If you have to raise your voice to shout over the noise to be heard by someone within an arm’s length away, that noise could be a serious risk to your hearing. Prevent hearing loss by removing yourself from situations where noise is excessive or using earplugs to protect your ears.
Hearing Loss Protection
How can I protect my own or my child’s hearing from loud noise? The key words are education and prevention! Dealing with noise and its effects on your hearing is a personal responsibility. The obvious first rule is to avoid loud noise whenever possible. A good rule of thumb is to remember that if you must shout to be heard, then you should avoid the situation.
In typical day-to-day activities, you and your children can be exposed to damaging noise from many sources, such as:
- Lawnmowers and leaf blowers
- Power tools
- Kitchen appliances (like food processors, garbage disposals, and dishwashers)
- Prolonged exposure to heavy traffic or subway noise
- Long flights in an airplane
- Farm tractor noise
In addition, recreational activities can be sources of damaging noise:
- Hunting and target shooting
- Riding personal watercraft
- Motorcycle riding
- Attending rock concerts
- Listening to music on personal devices (such as MP3 players)
Here are some things you can do:
Wear hearing protection.
Cotton in the ears will not work. Hearing protection, such as earmuffs or earplugs, can be purchased at drugstores, hardware stores, or sports stores. Custom earmolds can be made to fit your ears by an audiologist. Learn how to correctly insert the earplugs and earmolds for the best noise reduction.
Earplugs are placed into the ear canal so that they totally block the canal. They come in different shapes and sizes, or they can be custom-made by taking an impression of the ear. Earplugs can reduce noise by 15 to 30 decibels (dB) depending on how they are made and fit.
Earmuffs fit completely over both ears. They must fit tightly so that sound is blocked from entering the ears. Like earplugs, muffs can reduce noise 15 to 30 dB depending on how they are made and fit.
Earplugs and earmuffs
Earplugs and earmuffs can be used together to achieve an even greater sound reduction. Use of earplugs and earmuffs is recommended when noise exposure is particularly high.
Do not listen to loud sounds
Do not listen to loud sounds for too long. If you don’t have hearing protection, move away from the loud sound. Give your ears a break from the sound. Plug your ears with your fingers as emergency vehicles pass on the road.
Lower the loudness
Lower the loudness of the sound. Keep personal listening devices set to no more than half volume. Don’t be afraid to ask others to turn down the sounds from speakers. Speak to the movie theater projectionist if the movie soundtrack is too loud.
Be a good consumer
Look for noise ratings on appliances, sporting equipment, power tools, and hair dryers. Purchase quieter products. This is especially important when purchasing toys for children.
Be a local advocate
Some movie theaters, health clubs, dance clubs, bars, and amusement centers are very noisy. Speak to managers and those in charge about the loud noise and the potential damage to hearing. Ask to have the noise source lowered.
Can my ears get used to noise?
Don’t be fooled by thinking your ears are “tough” or that you have the ability to “tune it out”! Noise-induced hearing loss is usually gradual and painless but, unfortunately, permanent. Once destroyed, the hearing nerve and its sensory nerve cells do not repair.
If you think you have “gotten used to” the noise you routinely encounter, you may already have some hearing damage.
- If you work in an at-risk occupation, check with your employer to make sure that your jobsite has an effective program to adequately protect your hearing, meeting federal or state regulations.
- Wear hearing protection, such as earplugs or earmuffs, consistently when using loud equipment at work or at home. Foam earplugs are available at your pharmacy, earmuffs can be purchased at sporting goods or safety equipment stores, and specialized hearing protection is available from hearing clinics.
- Limit exposure to noisy activities at home. Monitor your listening level and how long you are listening to personal listening devices (like MP3 players, such as iPods).
- Encourage your children to use their headphones conservatively. Consider investing in higher quality earphones that block out background noise, to help you moderate your listening levels in noisier places. Note: being able to overhear your child’s headphones is not a good way to tell if they are listening too loud! If you can hear it, their music might be too loud, but just because you can’t hear it, that doesn’t mean the levels are ok.
- Buy quieter products (compare dB ratings and ask for low-noise products)
- Keep an “eye” on your hearing – see a hearing health professional routinely for hearing testing, or if offered through your employer, ensure you know your hearing test results and track it year-to-year.