Noise-Induced Hearing Loss and Its Prevention

  • Medical Author:
    James K. Bredenkamp, MD, FACS

    Dr. Bredenkamp recieved his medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. He then went on to serve a six year residency at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine in the department of Surgery.

  • Medical Author: Frederick B Gaupp, MD
  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

What are acoustic trauma and noise-induced hearing loss?

Acoustic trauma occurs when any excessive sound energy strikes the inner ear. If it is brief, the noise may cause a reversible, temporary hearing loss, technically known as a temporary threshold shift. For example, after a loud rock concert, it is common to experience hearing dullness and ringing in the ears for several hours. In this situation, if symptoms persist beyond several days, oral steroids (cortisone-type medications) may help the inner ear to recover. If the noise is loud enough and the duration of exposure long enough, however, it may cause a permanent threshold shift. This condition is called noise-induced hearing loss, which has no cure and is irreversible.

Sudden hearing loss produced by a sudden and very loud noise (blast injury) is called acute acoustic trauma. If the sound is loud enough, it can cause the eardrum to rupture or the person to have a complete loss of hearing. Sometimes, particularly if the sudden loss is total and occurs combined with dizziness, immediate surgical exploration of the ear may be necessary. In this circumstance, the ear surgeon may need to locate and patch a hole (perilymphatic fistula) between the inner ear fluid space and the middle ear space.

Picture of the Inner Ear Structure
Picture of the Inner Ear Structure

How can a person tell if a noisy situation is dangerous to their hearing?

People may differ in their sensitivity to noise. Nevertheless, as a general rule, noise is probably damaging to the hearing if the noise:

  • makes it necessary to shout to be heard over the background noise,
  • causes ear pain,
  • makes the ears ring, or
  • causes a loss of hearing for several hours or more after exposure to the noise.

In contrast to popular belief, there is no truth to the idea that a person is able to "toughen up" the ears by frequent exposure to loud noise. In reality, cumulative noise in the past has probably damaged the ears to such a degree that a person doesn't hear the noise as much. Unfortunately, limited treatment is available for noise-induced hearing loss once the damage has occurred.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/6/2016

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