People know loud noise causes tinnitus, but few protect their ears

Photo credit: Bill Bishoff licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The UK’s Hippocratic Post reports that Tinnitus UK is calling for people to protect their ears when at work or during noisy leisure activities, based on a new study entitled “A lot to lose: noise exposure and tinnitus,” which finds that 35% of Britons surveyed blamed noise exposure for their tinnitus.

Tinnitus is commonly known as ringing in the ears. The technical definition of tinnitus varies, but basically it is “the perception of sound without an external sound stimulus.”

There are many causes of tinnitus, including head trauma and ear infections, but most experts agree that noise exposure–either over time or after a one-time exposure to loud noise–is the most common cause. I developed tinnitus after a one-time exposure to loud noise. Fortunately, my symptoms are mild, because there is no cure for tinnitus. There are many treatments for tinnitus, but none is FDA-approved, meaning none of them has been found to meet the FDA’s high standard of being safe and effective.

The overwhelming majority of research papers on auditory disorders, including research using animal models, are about noise-induced hearing loss. Hearing loss is relatively easy to study–audiometry is a well-developed research and clinical tool–and the locus of damage, the cochlear hair cell and cochlear synapse, is easy to view under the microscope. For the two other noise-induced auditory disorders, tinnitus and hyperacusis (a sensitivity to loud noise that doesn’t bother others), there are no easy clinical or research tests, and the precise locus of injury isn’t as well defined. I think there is a large overlap among these auditory disorders because studies show that almost everyone with tinnitus has at least some hearing loss, and up to half of those with hearing loss also report having tinnitus.

As authors at the CDC recently wrote, “An Ounce of Prevention Is Still Worth a Pound of Cure.” That is, prevention of noise-induced tinnitus and all noise-induced auditory disorders is easy–avoid exposure to loud noise.

If something sounds loud, it’s too loud, and one’s auditory health is at risk. Turn down the volume, leave the noisy environment, or use hearing protection to prevent the development of tinnitus, hearing loss, and hyperacusis.

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