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If someone ever told you to turn your music down or you would lose your hearing, they were right.

Noise-induced hearing loss affects roughly 17 percent of adults, and is the result of repeated or excessive exposure to loud noises. It’s not as much a matter of how loud a sound seems, but how forcefully the sound waves enter the structure of your ear.

Here’s how noise-induced hearing loss happens, how (and if) it can be treated, and how to prevent it from happening.

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Noise-induced hearing loss. Design by Alyssa Kiefer.

Noise-induced hearing loss is a condition that’s generally explained by the name itself.

If you — or those around you — have noticed that you’re less responsive to sounds, especially at the level of normal conversation, you may have some degree of hearing loss.

Sometimes, the hearing loss is temporary and reversible without treatment. For example, hearing a loud concert or fireworks once can affect you temporarily. But if you continue to be exposed to loud concerts or fireworks, you can have lasting hearing loss.

Besides decreased sensitivity to sounds, noise-induced hearing loss can cause symptoms like:

Noise-induced hearing loss can happen over time, or all at once. It’s not the sensation or the perception of the sound that’s damaging, it’s the force of the sound waves on the delicate structures in your ear.

When sound waves enter the ear, they can do so with a strong enough force to shear off the tiny hairs and other cells that line the ear. These hairs move as sound waves go past them, passing signals to the brain so these waves can be interpreted into messages you can understand.

When these tiny hairs are damaged, your ability to transfer sound waves to the brain is diminished.

Once these hairs and inner ear structures are damaged, they cannot regenerate or be repaired.

Noise-induced hearing loss in babies and young children

According to the World Health Organization, about 60 percent of hearing loss in children is preventable, but hearing loud sounds is typically not the cause.

Hearing loss in young children is usually due to:

  • congenital causes (something you’re born with)
  • a virus
  • middle ear fluid
  • wax buildup

Both middle ear fluid and wax buildup are reversible.

While hearing loss due to noises isn’t a typical cause, certain sounds (like fireworks) can be more uncomfortable or painful to their ears, compared to older children and adults. This is because babies have particularly narrow ear canals.

Others at risk for noise-induced hearing loss

Some people have a higher risk of developing hearing loss.

This includes those who are exposed to loud sounds regularly or repeatedly, such as at:

  • concerts
  • work
  • any place music is played loudly

Hearing loss may harm your health in a number of ways. Safety is a big concern. As hearing fades, your ability to hear conversations may deteriorate, but so will your sensitivity to louder sounds like warning signals or sirens.

Aside from these more obvious complications, hearing loss may lead to problems like:

Hearing loss is diagnosed initially with an assessment of your personal and family history, as well as a physical exam.

A doctor will look for any structural problems or wax buildup in your ear that could be contributing to the problem. You may be referred to an ENT (otolaryngologist).

There are several types of hearing tests that may follow, and a doctor will use an audiogram — or chart of your results — to determine the type and extent of hearing loss you may have.

Noise-induced hearing loss is commonly characterized by:

  • difficulty detecting high-frequency sounds
  • a history of hazardous noise exposure
  • a noticeable stopping point at the detection of high-frequency sounds (audiometric notch)

There are several tools that can help you if you’re experiencing noise-induced hearing loss.

Hearing aids

There are many types of hearing aids, including ones that sit behind the ear or in the ear. Some amplify sounds, while others amplify sounds and decrease background noise at the same time.

Cochlear implants

Cochlear implants are surgically implanted devices that directly stimulate the auditory nerve when your natural cochlea has been damaged. They’re typically only used for those who have significant high frequency hearing loss.

Therapy

Various therapies are available that can help you learn to live with hearing loss. Some techniques include learning lip reading or moving conversations to a quieter area.

Sound amplifiers

Beyond hearing aids, there are a number of devices that can amplify sounds and make them easier for you to hear. This includes devices that can increase the sound on your television or telephone.

Noise-induced hearing loss is preventable. Take care when exposing yourself to loud noises.

If you work in a job where you cannot avoid being exposed to loud noises, you can take precautions to protect your hearing. Some options include:

  • moving away from loud sounds
  • turning down the volume on speakers
  • wearing protective ear coverings or ear plugs
  • getting regular hearing screenings if you’re in a high-risk group

The first step to living with hearing loss is to acknowledge and accept it.

Early intervention can help you prevent additional damage. Leaving hearing problems untreated can lead to more significant issues.

Talk with a medical professional about ways you can address your hearing loss, as well as for referrals to local support groups or community organizations. You can also find help through groups like the Hearing Loss Association of America.

Noise-induced hearing loss results from repeated loud noises that damage the delicate structures in your ear.

You can prevent this kind of hearing loss by reducing your exposure to loud noises and wearing hearing protection when you can’t.