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Am Fam Physician. 2000;61(9):2759-2760

See related article on noise-induced hearing loss.

What is noise-induced hearing loss?

Noise-induced hearing loss is the slow loss of hearing caused by too much noise. Hearing loss happens when too much noise hurts the hair cells in the inner ear.

Noise-induced hearing loss is one of the most common causes of nerve deafness. As many as 10 million Americans have this kind of hearing problem.

Noise-induced hearing loss lasts forever. Hearing aids can help, but they can't fully correct it.

This kind of hearing loss can be prevented by staying away from loud and long noises.

How do I know if noise could be hurting my ears?

You may be exposed, at work or through hobbies, to noise that hurts your hearing. If you have to shout when you talk to a coworker who is standing next to you, the noise level at your workplace may be hurting your ears.

Both the loudness of sound (called the intensity) and the amount of time you hear the noise are important. Sound is measured in decibels. Eight hours of hearing noise at 85 decibels could hurt your hearing. At higher sound levels, you could lose hearing in even less time.

Workplaces where sound levels are an average of 85 decibels or higher average for more than eight hours must have programs to save the hearing of workers. These workplaces must give free hearing protection devices to workers.

Common Noises That Might Hurt Your Ears Include:

Firearms140 to 170 decibels
Chain saw, rock concert110 to 120 decibels
Personal stereo players/disc player100 decibels
Farm machinery90 to 110 decibels
Certain children's toys110 decibels
Snowmobile100 decibels
Motorcycle, lawnmower90 decibels

How do I know if I'm getting noise-induced hearing loss?

Noise-induced hearing loss usually happens slowly. There is no pain. Right after hearing noise, you may notice a “ringing” sound in your ears. You might have trouble hearing people talk. After several hours or even a few days, these symptoms usually go away. However, when you are exposed to this kind of noise again, you could get a hearing loss that lasts forever.

Early signs of noise-induced hearing loss include the following:

  • Having trouble understanding what people say, especially in crowded rooms

  • Needing to turn the TV sound higher

  • Having to ask people to repeat what they just said to you

  • Not being able to hear high-pitched sounds, like a baby crying or a telephone ringing in another room

Along with the hearing loss, you may also have ringing in the ears. (This is called “tinnitus.”)

The only way to find out if you have a hearing loss is to have your hearing tested by a trained professional.

What can I do to prevent noise-induced hearing loss?

  • You can make “hearing health” a part of your lifestyle. Stay away from loud or prolonged noises when you can. Turn down the music volume. Buy power tools that have sound controls.

  • When you must be around noise, either at work or at play, use something to protect your hearing.

  • Hearing protection devices, like earplugs, earmuffs and canal caps, are sold in drugstores and hardware stores. Different brands offer different amounts of protection. If you are not sure which kind is best for you, or how to use it correctly, ask your doctor. Often the best kind is the one that you feel comfortable in so you can wear it when you need it.

  • Keep your hearing protectors handy and in good condition.

  • Teach your family how important it is to stay away from too much noise and to use hearing protection.

  • If you think you have a hearing loss (or if someone in your family thinks so), it is important to have your hearing tested.

To get more information about noise-induced hearing loss

In addition to your doctor, here are four good sources of information about noise-induced hearing loss:

  • League for the Hard of Hearing

    71 W. 23rd St.

    New York, NY 10010-4162

    Telephone: 1-917-305-7700

    Web site: http://www.lhh.org/noise

  • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

    200 Independence Ave., S.W.

    Washington, D.C. 20201

    Telephone: 1-800-35-NIOSH

    Web site: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh

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