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Occupational hearing loss

Definition

Occupational hearing loss is damage to the inner ear from noise or vibrations due to certain types of jobs.

Alternative Names

Hearing loss - occupational; Noise-induced hearing loss

Causes

Over time, repeated exposure to loud noise and music can cause hearing loss.

Hearing and the cochlea

Watch this video about:
Hearing and the cochlea

Sounds above 80 decibels (dB, a measurement of the loudness or strength of sound vibration) may cause vibrations intense enough to damage the inner ear. This is more likely to happen if the sound continues for a long time.

  • 90 dB -- a large truck 5 yards away (motorcycles, snowmobiles, and similar engines range from 85 - 90 dB)
  • 100 dB -- some rock concerts
  • 120 dB -- a jackhammer about 3 feet away
  • 130 dB -- a jet engine from 100 feet away

A general rule of thumb is that if you need to shout to be heard, the sound is in the range that can damage hearing.

Some jobs carry a high risk for hearing loss, such as:

  • Airline ground maintenance
  • Construction
  • Farming
  • Jobs involving loud music or machinery

In the U.S., laws regulate the maximum job noise exposure that it is allowed. Both the length of exposure and decibel level are considered. If the sound is at or greater than the maximum levels recommended, you need to take steps to protect your hearing.

Symptoms

The main symptom is partial or complete hearing loss. The hearing loss will likely get worse over time with continued exposure.

Noise in the ear (tinnitus) may accompany hearing loss.

Exams and Tests

A physical exam will not show any specific changes in most cases. Tests that may be done include:

Treatment

The hearing loss is very often permanent. The goals of treatment are to:

  • Prevent further hearing loss
  • Improve communication with any remaining hearing
  • Develop coping skills (such as lip reading)

Using a hearing aid may help you understand speech. You can also use other devices to help with hearing loss.

Protecting your ears from any further damage and hearing loss is a key part of treatment. Protect your ears when you are exposed to loud noises. Wear ear plugs or earmuffs to protect against damage from loud equipment.

Be aware of risks connected with recreation such as shooting a gun, driving snowmobiles, or other, similar activities.

Learn how to protect your ears when listening to music at home or concerts.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Hearing loss is often permanent. The loss may get worse if you don't take measures to prevent further damage.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if:

  • You have hearing loss
  • The hearing loss gets worse
  • You develop other new symptoms

Prevention

  • Protect your ears when you are exposed to loud noises. Wear protective ear plugs or earmuffs when you are around loud equipment.
  • Be aware of the risks to hearing from recreational activities such as shooting a gun or driving snowmobiles.
  • Do not listen to loud music for long periods of time, including using headphones.

References

Lonsbury-Martin BL, Martin GK. Noise-induced hearing loss. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2010:chap 151.


Review Date: 8/4/2014
Reviewed By: Ashutosh Kacker, MD, BS, Professor of Clinical Otolaryngology, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Attending Otolaryngologist, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, New York, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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