There’s nothing fun about a loud concert, especially if it has the potential to spark a lifetime of ear problems — including hearing loss, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), sound sensitivity, or even chronic ear pain.
Many people are familiar with muffled hearing and ringing ears — called tinnitus — after a concert or loud sporting event. Even if these symptoms go away within days, they can permanently damage the ear, even years later. The effect of noise is cumulative and, researchers say, irreversible.
According to the National Institutes of Health, about 50% of Americans age 75 and older have a disabling hearing loss, where their trouble understanding speech becomes apparent to them and to others. Among teens, many of whom are fans of ear buds and loud music, nearly 20% report some hearing loss. Tinnitus, a relentless ringing that can be much more distressing than hearing loss, plagues 10 to 15% of adults, according to various studies.
Why noise can cause tinnitus
How does loud noise cause tinnitus or damage hearing?
Basically, a sound wave vibrates the eardrum and then passes to the cochlea, which contains rows of microscopic hair cells bathed in fluid. These hair cells move with the sound and send signals through the auditory nerve to the brain, which interprets the sound. Noise that’s too loud or long-lasting destroys the hair cells, causing hearing loss or partial deafness.
The mechanisms of tinnitus, however, remain a mystery. One study used electrodes to measure the brain activity of a 50-year-old man with tinnitus and hearing loss. The patient had been a recreational firearm user in his younger days. The effects of the tinnitus permeated many parts of his brain, while a matching tone activated only the part of the brain that processes hearing. In other words, the “noise” of tinnitus affects the brain far differently than a similar real noise does. That may explain why tinnitus is so distressing.
Noise doesn’t even have to be all that loud to be damaging. A long exposure to less-intense noise, such as a job in a noisy restaurant, can be especially problematic. Bryan Pollard, president of the nonprofit Hyperacusis Research, says people report ear problems caused by all sorts of commonplace hazards, from lawn mowers to smoke alarms to power tools.
According to hearing specialists, limiting the volume and duration of noise exposure goes a long way toward safety, as does the proper use of hearing protection such as earplugs or protective earmuffs.
A rule of thumb: Earplugs are needed when the noise is so loud that people sitting next to each other must raise their voices to be heard.
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