An estimated 10% of the world’s population has some degree of hearing loss. And while there are many different potential causes of hearing loss, one-third of people with damaged hearing have done so through excessive exposure to sound that could have been avoided. Age-related hearing loss may also be contributed to by repeated exposure to loud noises at work or home across a lifetime.
The number of people with hearing issues is growing – possibly because we are exposing ourselves to louder noise in the form of music, machinery, traffic and everyday sounds. So what can we do to protect our hearing health and help with hearing loss prevention?
When a person is over-exposed to excessive levels of sound, the sensitive structures of the inner ear can be damaged. As the vibrations of the sound waves become more powerful with an increase in volume, they damage or destroy the fragile hair cells in our ears, which can result in permanent noise-induced hearing loss. This can occur from either a single burst of noise or a cumulative effect over a prolonged period of time and is known as noise-related hearing loss.
Signs of hearing loss may include a ringing or buzzing in the ears (tinnitus), everyday sounds seeming distorted or muffled, difficulty with hearing high-pitched sounds, and problems communicating with others in conversation. You may also have trouble differentiating sounds that are similar (such as ‘sh’ and ‘s’ or ‘f’ and ‘th’).
If you experience a ringing, buzzing, or other sound in your ears or head that is not caused by an external physical source, this is known as tinnitus. The sound can be continuous or intermittent and can vary in volume and pitch.
The most common perceptions of tinnitus include hearing a ringing, buzzing, hissing, humming, whistling or roaring sound in one or both ears. Some people may also experience difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, and increased stress or anxiety due to the sound.
To reduce the risk of developing tinnitus, avoid exposure to loud noise for prolonged periods, wear earplugs or protective hearing devices in noisy environments, and avoid excessive use of headphones or earbuds. Taking breaks from loud noise exposure can also help with tinnitus prevention, as can maintaining good ear hygiene, avoiding smoking, and managing stress levels.
One of the keys to preventing noise-induced hearing loss is avoiding exposure to sounds with hazardous decibel levels. Decibels (dB) are a unit of measurement used to express the intensity of sound or the power of an electrical signal. In general, sounds below 85 dB, such as a normal conversation, rustling leaves, or a quiet office, are unlikely to cause hearing damage. Sounds that exceed 85 dB, however, can be harmful and potentially damage hearing if you are exposed to them for a prolonged period. Many everyday sounds can very easily reach above this threshold – for example, heavy traffic, power tools, lawnmowers and even loud music playing on your smartphone.
Extremely hazardous decibel levels are those that exceed 120 dB and can cause immediate hearing damage and permanent hearing loss. Jet engines, firearms or explosions, ambulance sirens, or concerts are all examples of sounds that can push up to 120 dB and beyond.
It's important to note that the duration of exposure also plays a significant role in the risk of hearing damage. For example, exposure to 85 dB for eight hours a day may be harmful, while exposure to 100 dB for just 15 minutes can cause hearing damage.