Sound is one way that we connect to the world through, music, nature and more. However, once sounds reach a certain level, they can cause chronic stress and even permanent hearing damage. It’s important to understand how to listen safely in our day to day and know when the times and places where our hearing may be at risk for lasting damage.
Sound vs. noise
Sound is one of the most amazing of the senses, allowing us to hear through vibration from the source, to the ears. When we hear the voice of someone we love, our favorite song or the wind in the trees it can give us a sense of peace. However, as the decibels rise, quickly sound can level into noise. The volume or loudness of sound is measured in decibels and any decibel level over 85 dBA can start to cause permanent hearing damage. However, even at lower levels, our health is at risk. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that 24 hours or more of sounds 70 dBA or louder can start to trigger cortisol levels in our body. This is the chemical hormone released when we experience fight or flight mode. Technically considered noise pollution at this point, noise pollution will keep our bodies in a constant state of high alert, adrenaline and anxiety, interrupting sleep and more.
What is noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL)?
However, as the decibels rise, past chronic stress, sound can damage our hearing permanently. Noise induced hearing loss is sensorineural in nature- meaning that it causes the tiny hair-like cells of the inner ear to become damaged. Called stereocilia, these cells are responsible for sending sound signals from our ears to the brain. When audio vibrations escalate past a safe threshold, they cause the stereocilia to vibrate loud enough to shatter against the membrane wall which holds them, leaving behind lasting hearing damage. Stereocilia are not replaceable and do not regrow and when damaged, are unable to trigger electrical signals to the brain, impeding hearing.
Symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss
Have you ever left a loud concert or sporting event with ringing in your ears? This is tinnitus and signifies noise-induced hearing loss has occurred. While the ringing may dissipate and you may not immediately be aware of the damage incurred, it is still very present. This is part of the reason why so many with hearing loss put off treatment for years. It can be so gradual that your brain rationalizes the loss over years or even decades.
However not knowing about it doesn’t mean it is not affecting how you hear. Day to day, a person may struggle to hear speech, especially words with “s,” “f,” “sh” and “th” sounds in them. (For example, the words “shell” “sell” and “fell” are hard to distinguish.) This can make everyday conversation difficult and frustrating. Over years can affect your ability to communicate at work, with friends and at home, leading to loss of self-esteem and chronic depression.
Because Noise induced hearing loss is hard to identify it’s important to know the signs. Aside from tinnitus, symptoms can include:
- You find yourself asking people to repeat themselves regularly
- You struggle to hear in noisy environments with multiple conversations happening at once.
- You have issues hearing over the phone even at the highest volume
- You struggle to hear the TV while others complain about the volume.
Understanding Safe Exposure
Decibels measure the loudness of sound and the 85 is the cutoff for safe listening. However, it’s not just the volume but length of exposure which causes damage to the cells of the ear. At 85 dBA the ear can withstand this exposure for 8 constant hours. However, every increment of three in increase can half this time. For instance, at 88 dBA exposure time is only 4 hours. By the time a sound reaches 95 dBA it takes less than an hour to experience damage and at 110, it takes under 15 minuets! It’s important to know the levels of sound in your daily life so you can know when it’s time to protect your hearing.
Protecting Your Hearing
To find out how you can protect your hearing and how to treat an existing hearing loss due to exposure to noise, contact us today to schedule a hearing exam.