Screeching car alarms. Shrieking trains. The dull rumble of planes. Just reading those phrases may make you want to cover your ears. Loud noises have the ability to, quite literally, get under your skin.
Besides being a source of annoyance, they can also have a significant impact on your health.
According to a new study out of Germany’s Mainz University Medical Center, an increasing amount of noise can actually throw your heart out of rhythm. Called atrial fibrillation, this irregular heart beat can lead to blood clots, stroke, and even heart failure.
“Anything that can create agitation, irritation, or changes in blood pressure can trigger fibrillation,” explains Dr. Shilpi Agarwal, a board-certified family medicine physician in Washington. “It’s not surprising that irritable noise, or noise in general when someone is looking for quiet, could trigger this in the cardiac system.”
Numerous studies have shown the risks of long-term exposure to noise. And there’s reason to believe that it’s not just the level of sound, but the types of sounds themselves that are to blame. (After all, who complains about the sound of an ocean lapping at the shore?)
When it comes to detecting danger, we humans prioritize what we hear rather than how loud it is. That’s why even during sleep, your brain is still listening. Just the angry jockeying of traffic outside your bedroom window may trigger your body to churn out cortisol (the “stress hormone”) even if you never wake up.
Here are the other stealthy ways a barrage of “bad” noise can hurt your health.
Your hearing takes a hit
You know your ears feel funny after being bombarded by noises like the sound of jackhammers right outside your home. But you might not know why.
“Loud noise exposure can damage or destroy hair cells found within our hearing organ,” explains Dr. Ana Kim, an otolaryngologist at ColumbiaDoctors and associate professor of Otolaryngology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.
About 10,000 tiny hair cells inside our ears are responsible for converting every sound we hear into electrical signals. Those signals then get transferred to the hearing centers in our brains that allow us to appreciate sound, speech, and music, while minimizing any unnecessary background noise.
“Noise exposure tends to damage the hair cells at the base of the cochlea [the spiral cavity of your inner ear] which results in high frequency hearing loss,” says Kim. Since most of the consonants we speak in English require high frequency hearing to understand, “this has a significant impact on one’s ability to understand conversations,” Kim adds.
Long or repeated exposure to sounds at or over 85 decibels (think heavy city traffic) can bring on what’s called noise-induced hearing loss.
Your brain becomes inflamed
In recent years, experts have discovered that loud noise can hurt more than your ears.
“It can damage the delicate nerve endings that transfer the electrical information from the hair cells [inside your ear] to your brain, potentially causing inflammatory reactions within the brain itself,” says Kim. As a result, there’s growing evidence that hearing loss may be linked to a loss of cognition, such as dementia.
Your mood darkens
Imagine having to work in an office with a smoke alarm that’s constantly going off. Spoiler alert: You’d end the day in a foul mood. The same is true if you work anywhere there’s unwanted noise you can’t escape. “Irritability and anxiety worsen in noisy environments,” Agarwal says. “It creates more mental ‘background noise’ which can make calming techniques or identifying triggers for anxiety more difficult.”
Your immune system weakens
It’s not like you hear a truck backfire and instantly catch a cold. “But indirectly, your overall quality of life may be impacted [by noise] which affects your overall well-being,” says Kim.
Remember that “stress hormone”? It increases your blood pressure and blood sugar, while decreasing your body’s ability to fight off disease. Some experts believe it doesn’t matter what triggers it into production. Be it noise pollution or some other part of your life, the effects are likely the same: an uptick in infections and colds. Chronic health issues like diabetes and stomach ulcers are also stress-related.
Your focus goes out the window
It’s no coincidence that you crave peace and quiet when you’re trying to study. If you’re in a loud environment, “your brain has to filter out loud noise for you to… concentrate,” says Kim. That extra work steals precious energy away from more important tasks, such as focus and problem-solving.
One Swedish study found that people who worked in a noisy open-floor office remembered fewer words when given a basic memory test. (They also rated themselves as more tired and less motivated to work than those who listened to peaceful river sounds.)
You’ll find it harder to get a good night’s rest
This may be stating the obvious, but it bears repeating: “Too much noise can be distracting and stimulating to the brain, making it more difficult to get into a mode of relaxation and ultimately fall asleep,” says Agarwal. And outside noise in particular impedes the quality of your sleep once you do drift off. That will do far more than make you groggy the next day. Poor sleep is linked to long-term health consequences like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
You may find it harder to have a baby
“Noise pollution or loud noises may affect male fertility, but it’s unclear exactly why,” says Agarwal. What does seem clear is that a huge cacophony isn’t required. Scientists at Seoul National University found that men who were exposed to relatively low levels of noise — like that of an air-conditioner — for eight years were more likely to be diagnosed with infertility. Women are at risk, too. Nighttime noise exposure’s been linked to miscarriage, premature birth, and birth defects.
How to silence your noisy concerns
What’s the best way to put a hush all over your world? “Avoidance,” suggests Kim.
In other words, if you have a big work project due, go to the library instead of trying to complete it at your neighbor’s backyard luau. If you need to nap and know your neighbor’s dog barks all night, try shutting your windows and turning on a white noise machine.
You don’t necessarily have to switch things up if your dream home is only a mile from the airport or you love your career in construction. But for noises you simply can’t get away from, invest in earplugs, Kim advises.
You may even want to invest in custom-made musician ear plugs (made by an audiologist) that fit more snugly into the contours of your ear. While they’ll cost more than the ones you buy off the shelf at your local pharmacy, they’ll provide more protection for your ears, not to mention your mental and physical health.