Preventing Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

We’re exposed to loud noises every day, but when those noises are extremely loud, or we’re exposed to them over and over, they can cause what’s called noise-induced hearing loss. Now a new study sheds light on the role of zinc in NIHL, and possible ways to prevent it.

It’s one of the most common causes of hearing loss—exposure to loud noises—either over a period of time, like if you work around noisy machinery on a daily basis; or during a single incident, like if you are exposed to an explosion, gunshot blast or fireworks.

Even attending a concert where the music is extra loud, or listening to music on your headphones with the volume turned up, can cause what’s known as noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that between 6% and 24% of adults in the United States under the age of 70 have some degree of NIHL. Teens are even more at risk. Up to 17% of them in the U.S. are estimated to have NIHL in one or both ears.

Unfortunately, most people don’t realize how serious NIHL is and the impact it can have on their hearing and their life.

According to the NIH, regular exposure to sounds over 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. It’s also important to note that NIHL can occur as the result of a single exposure to a very loud noise, or after years of exposure to sound at a consistently elevated volume.

Here are some common sound levels we experience in everyday life:

  • Normal conversation: 60-70 decibels
  • Movie theater: 74-104 decibels
  • Motorcycles and dirt bikes: 80-110 decibels
  • Music with headphones at maximum volume or a live concert: 94-110 decibels
  • Sirens: 110-129 decibels
  • Fireworks: 140-175 decibels

So, how can you prevent potential damage to your hearing at work, at concerts or at fireworks displays? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the old saying goes.

If you suspect you might be exposed to loud sounds, like you’re planning to attend a concert and have seats close to the front, wear noise-cancelling headphones specifically designed to protect your hearing. Or, if you participate in shooting sports, purchase noise-cancelling hearing protection. There are a number of options available through most audiology practices. Be aware that these custom devices typically require a visit to the office for ear impressions. This ensures a good fit and the optimum level of protection.

New Research Shines a Light on NIHL at the Cellular Level

Now scientists are investigating how NIHL occurs on the cellular level in the body. In recently published research, scientists appear to be another step closer to understanding and potentially preventing NIHL.

In this study, scientists found that loud noises affected parts of the ear on a molecular level, disrupting hearing function specifically having to do with the mineral zinc in the cochlea, a spiral-shaped cavity in the inner ear that converts sound waves into electrical impulses that the brain interprets as sound frequencies.

Zinc plays an important role in the body, including supporting the immune system and chemical signaling in the brain.

Researchers reported that when mice were exposed to loud noises, the rodents’ labile zinc levels spiked. Labile zinc is zinc that is “free” and has not bound to a protein. This dysregulation of zinc in turn led to damage and degeneration at the cellular level, resulting in hearing loss.

The discovery also led the scientists to discover a potential cure. By using a drug that was able to soak up excess zinc, researchers reported that they could reduce hearing loss.

They said the findings could help to prevent NIHL in the future by serving as an additional therapy for hearing loss. But for now, more research is needed to explore this potential connection between zinc and the role it may play in hearing loss.

In the meantime, take every precaution to prevent hearing loss.

  • Avoid loud events where you know you will be exposed to unsafe levels of sound.
  • If you do attend these events, and this includes concerts, motorsports events, fireworks displays, and shooting events, just to name a few, wear over-the-counter hearing protection at minimum.
  • To increase the protection level of over-the-counter devices, like foam earplugs or headphones, wear both.
  • If you frequently attend these types of events, or are routinely exposed to loud noises in the workplace, consider the purchase of custom hearing protection.

Associated Audiologists offers many types of hearing protection designed specifically for the type of exposure you may experience.

To learn more, schedule an appointment with a doctoral-level audiologist.