This happens when noise damages the hair cells, which are the tiny sensory cells that receive sound and convert it into electrical signals that our brains then interpret and understand. Once those hair cells are damaged, they don’t recover. In addition, loud noises can damage the auditory nerve.
Hair cells can be damaged in a split second, by a single exposure to a loud “impulse” sound. This type of sound includes explosions and gunfire. They also can be damaged by long-term exposure to loud sound, such as equipment running in a shop or on a job site.
Audiologists measure sound in decibels. On the decibel scale, an increase of 10 represents a multiplication factor of 10. In real terms, an increase of 10 means that you perceive the sound as twice as loud. Once sound reaches a level of 85 decibels, you’re in the danger range.
What does this mean in terms of what you really hear? A refrigerator runs at about 45 decibels, or 45 db. Normal speech is at about 60 db. Gunfire, firecrackers and motorcycle engines can be between 120 and 150 db. All three can cause damage to the hair cells and hearing loss, depending on how close you are to them, the type of noises they are, and how long they last.
Impulse sound such as gunfire can cause immediate, permanent hearing loss. When you have this kind of hearing loss you also may suffer from tinnitus. You may “hear” roaring, buzzing, whistling or ringing sounds in your ears; these “pseudo-sounds” are caused by the same damage to the hair cells that causes hearing loss. Long term exposure to loud noises can cause the same kind of damage, but it’s more gradual and takes time to develop.
Who’s At Risk?
Anyone who is exposed to loud noise is at risk for noise related hearing loss. This includes adults, children, and the elderly. About 15 percent of Americans between 20 and 69 have some hearing loss that may have developed because of noise exposure of some kind. This kind of hearing loss can come from going to rock concerts, using noisy equipment in a confined space, or spending time on a shooting range.
If you’re regularly exposed to noise, you can protect your hearing by wearing ANSI-certified ear muffs or ear plugs. Noise related hearing loss is preventable, but you need to conscientious about using hearing protection every time you’re in a noisy environment. You can purchase both ear plugs and good quality ear muffs online or at sporting goods stores and hardware stores, as well as big box stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot.
What type of loud sounds have you been exposed to that have caused noise related hearing loss?