For millions of people around the world, “What?” is an all too common question. That’s because these individuals have debilitating hearing loss, many due to excessive noise both on and off the job. Latest statistics from the World Health Organisation state that over 5% of the world’s population, 466 million people, have disabling hearing loss (432 million adults and 34 million children). It is estimated that by 2050 over 900 million people, or one in every ten, will have impaired hearing loss.
Hearing loss can be congenital or acquired. Congenital hearing loss is that which is present at birth, or soon thereafter. It can be caused by hereditary and non-hereditary genetic factors or by complications during pregnancy and labour. Acquired hearing loss can occur at any age and is due to factors such as disease, injury, ageing and excessive noise and sounds, to name a few.
Out of all the potential causes for hearing loss, the most common is over exposure to noise. Hearing impairment as a result of excessive noise and sounds can come from many sources and is referred to as Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL).
Excessive noise and sounds includes occupational and recreational exposure. Occupational exposure occurs where workers are employed in hazardous noise environments and potentially exposed to hearing hazards on a daily basis. Recreational exposure is typically associated with the use of personal audio devices at high volumes and for prolonged periods of time, as well as regular attendance at concerts, nightclubs, bars and sporting events.
Exactly what is Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL)? In layman’s terms, NIHL is a hearing impairment resulting from exposure to loud sounds. It can be caused by a one-time exposure to an intense impulse sound or by prolonged exposure to noises over 85 decibels. While one-time exposure to a loud impulse sound may damage your hearing and cause tinnitus (an annoying ringing or buzzing sound in your ear that makes it difficult to concentrate or rest), continuous exposure to loud sounds causes a gradual loss of hearing over time. When we think about Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) we typically associate it with the workplace, however, it is more than just a workplace issue. It’s not just power tools and industrial machinery that can damage your ears. Any sound, whether it’s music, cheering crowds at a sporting event, cars roaring by at the race track or the blast of a rifle, can all be hazardous. Any loud sound can damage your hearing.
The risk of damaging your ears depends on both the sound level and how long you are exposed to it. So what are the warning signs of hearing damage? Often, the first sign is tinnitus but other typical indicators are:
If you can relate to these symptoms and feel you may have a hearing impairment you should seek professional help and discuss options with your GP. NIHL not only effects your hearing, it can severely affect your quality of life, leading to fatigue, stress, depression and withdrawal from social situations.
Noise is everywhere, and much of it can be harmful to your hearing. Even common sounds you hear at work or home can contribute to long term hearing loss and other health risks. We measure sound level, or loudness, in decibels, abbreviated as dB or dBA (dBA is a particular scale that represents the human hearing). The decibel scale below illustrates some of the common sounds we come across on a daily basis, whether at work, in and around the home, or recreationally.
You may be surprised at the dBA ratings of some of them. A ticking watch or a whisper would be about 20 dBA. The sound level in a quiet room, such as a library, is about 40 dBA. A normal conversation is typically about 65 dBA and most vacuum cleaners put out at least 80 dBA. At 90 dBA, a leaf blower or lawn mower, can cause a temporary hearing loss and other symptoms within a few hours. So be weary if you attend motor sports events such as the Supercars or Formula 1, you may be subjected to excessive noise (85dBA or above) throughout the course of the day.
Prolonged exposure to sounds at 85 dBA and above dramatically increases the risk of damage to the ears. The effects may be temporary if the the exposure is ceased. However, the symptoms are more likely to become permanent if exposure to loud sound is repeated over a long period of time. The louder the sound and the longer you listen to loud sounds, the greater your chances of damaging your ears. Unfortunately, once permanent damage is done, there are no medical treatments or hearing aids that can restore normal hearing.