What Is Noise Pollution? How It Affects Hearing
January 28, 2022

If you pay attention to the news, you most likely are overly familiar with the fact that pollution is an issue. Unclean industries since the Industrial Revolution have pumped many different pollutants into our environment.

Carbon dioxide air pollution, the pollution of rivers, and even microplastics finding their way to the ocean are all different substances that have been placed in our environment due to human activities. 

While these physical aspects of pollution gain a lot of traction in terms of media, noise pollution is one that gets significantly less press. There are many sources of noise pollution. They can all have varying adverse health effects depending on intensity/frequency, period of exposure, and more.

Below is a closer look at noise pollution, how it can impact your hearing, and things you can do to help preserve your hearing health and limit noise pollution. 

Noise Pollution and its Impacts

Noise pollution is something that is not often discussed because it is largely ingrained into your normal day-to-day routine. Unless you live in the remote countryside, you are most likely bombarded by noise at all hours of the day; these noises are what constitute noise pollution. 

The sound of your air conditioner, street noise from cars, a plane flying overhead, and even your neighbor mowing their lawn at the crack of dawn are all sources of noise pollution. While these are always present, most people tune them out and live their day normally.

While you may not notice these noises, your ears definitely sense them, and over time noise pollution can have detrimental impacts on public health. 

Below is a closer look at the ways in which excessive noise exposure can impact your overall health. Understanding how noise pollution may impact you negatively can enable you to understand why it is important to protect yourself from ambient noise. 

Sleep Disturbances

Healthy sleep cycles are crucial aspects of your overall health and something that many people are missing. While many people make an effort to go to bed and wake up at decent hours, the amount of sleep they get can vary, resulting in potential fatigue. 

Noise pollution (as well as light pollution) can have detrimental effects on sleep quality. This type of pollution can wake you up from sleep, keep you awake, and reduce your body’s ability to attain deeper levels of sleep. 

Poor sleep can be linked to diabetes, headaches, and heart disease.

Stress

 Another potential ill effect of noise pollution is that it can contribute to feelings of stress, irritability, and anxiety. Throughout most of history, humans have not had continuous sources of sound but today there seems to be an endless supply.

This large shift in a relatively small period of time doesn’t allow for a great amount of time for humans to adapt and, as a result, some people feel the impact it has on their mental wellbeing. 

While many people think that they ignore noise pollution, the effects of excess ambient noise can be felt in the form of feeling anxious, stressed, and generally overwhelmed. A great way to become more aware of this is to go somewhere quiet and notice how much more relaxed you are. 

Hearing Loss

One of the most detrimental and potentially lasting effects of noise pollution is in the development of hearing loss. Hearing loss can have many different causes ranging from reversible to lifelong. Unfortunately, the majority of hearing loss that is associated with noise pollution is lifelong. 

Hearing loss is becoming an increasingly common problem. While there could be many different reasons as to why a hearing impairment occurs, the increase in ambient noise and noise pollution is certainly not helping.

Studies have shown that large groups of people are exposed to ambient noise levels on a regular basis that could carry an increased risk for hearing loss and estimates a decline in hearing health. 

Common Sources of Noise Pollution

While all noise contributes to noise pollution, there are certain sources that can cause more lasting damage and impact your health to a greater extent. Below is a closer look at these sources so you can be aware of the sounds in your environment that could increase your risk of hearing loss.

Being aware of these common sources of dangerous sound levels can allow you to try and avoid them and better recognize when your hearing may be in jeopardy of becoming damaged. 

Construction

If you walk or drive past any construction site, you are likely to see workers wearing a number of protective equipment, including eye protection, a helmet, and perhaps most importantly, ear protection devices like earmuffs. 

Construction sites are notoriously hazardous from a sound level perspective with heavy machinery. Tools like jackhammers are constantly emitting sounds at an intensity and duration that could pose a risk of losing your hearing.

This type of noise is more prominent in urban environments during the daytime, but it can pop up just about anywhere.

Traffic Noise

While traffic may seem boring and mundane, your ears definitely take notice. This  bombardment of sounds could cause potential damage. The rumble from exhausts, the honking of horns, the release of the air brakes on the city bus, and other noises all contribute to the elevation of noise caused by road traffic. 

While traffic is by no means a construction site in terms of noise level, long periods of exposure could put your hearing at risk. If you do find that you are constantly near busy, loud roads, you can try out some earplugs or noise-canceling headphones to help reduce your ears exposure and keep them safe. 

How Does Hearing Work?

The ears are a very complex and delicate organ within the body. Sound at a basic fundamental level is caused by small changes in air pressure due to sound waves. These small changes in air pressure are what the ear is able to detect and transform into a neural impulse to the brain. 

The ear utilizes a series of different structures to convert the sound wave into a nerve impulse. The first structure is the tympanic membrane; it is a thumb membrane that flexors when exposed to the pressure differences of sound.

The next structure is the middle ear, which consists of tiny little bones that are connected to one another and move as the tympanic membrane moves. These interconnected bones then translate this movement to the inner ear, known as the cochlea.

The cochlea is the part of the ear where the physical movement is converted into a nerve impulse. The bones strike a part of the cochlea known as the oval window, and this sends a shock wave throughout the cochlea.

The cochlea is lined with sensory cells that are hair-like. Each hair is utilized to detect a specific pitch. When that pitch is received by the middle ear, the hair cell bends and sends a nerve impulse to the brain. 

When Noise Causes Damage

With the description above, you have most likely gathered that the ear is composed of many individual and precise pieces that work seamlessly together to allow you to hear. While this fine-tuned machine can allow you to hear a number of different sounds, it can succumb to wear and tear like any other part of the body. 

There are two main ways that sound can damage your ears and the first of which is a blown eardrum. Extremely loud sounds that cause a very large pressure wave can have enough force to actually perforate the thin tympanic membrane.

When the membrane is perforated, it is no longer able to move back and forth as it once did and can reduce your ability to hear. These injuries occur suddenly, but they can heal over time; you will most likely be able to regain most of your hearing. A blown eardrum is one of the few potential causes of single-sided conductive hearing loss

The second way sound can damage your hearing is by wearing out or damaging the sensory hairs in your cochlea. This form of hearing loss is typically irreversible and can lead to lifelong loss of hearing, known as sensorineural hearing loss.

Unlike a blown eardrum, these forms of hearing loss can occur due to less loud noise but with longer exposure times. Things like a motorcycle could increase your chances of developing hearing problems after 50 minutes of exposure.

How To Manage Hearing Loss

While the best approach would be to mitigate your exposure, many of us have already lived a full life where the damage has already been done. If you find that you are in this situation, you are not alone. Thanks to advancements in science and technology, there are tons of options available. 

One of the best ways to manage a loss of hearing is through hearing aids. Hearing aids are able to take in the sounds you would normally hear and amplify them to a level that is perceivable by your ears.

Traditionally hearing aids have been bulky and unsightly but with today’s innovation, many options are hardly noticeable. Audien carries a full lineup of hearing aids starting at less than $100 a pair. With an in-ear design, rechargeable battery, and clear sound quality, you can rest easy knowing you are getting a top-notch product. 

Sound Intensity and Sensitivity

It is no secret that we live in a noisy world, but many people seem to let it slide by without second thought. Like many other aspects of your health, practicing preventive care is the best methodology. This is especially true when looking at preserving your hearing health.


Sources

Environmental Noise Pollution in the United States: Developing an Effective Public Health Response | NCBI

How Do We Hear? | NIDCD

What Noises Cause Hearing Loss? | CDC

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Drew Sutton M.D.

Drew Sutton, MD is a board-certified otolaryngologist. He has extensive experience and training in sinus and respiratory diseases, ear and skull base surgery, and pulmonary disorders. He has served as a Clinical Instructor at Grady Hospital Emory University for more than 12 years.

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