Understanding Tinnitus & Sound Sensitivities

Will Noise make my Tinnitus Worse?

Exposure to loud sounds is a major culprit responsible for tinnitus and hearing loss. Loud noise can also exacerbate existing tinnitus and also cause decrease in hearing. Excessive noise exposure will damage the auditory system in a slow, progressive and unnoticeable way over a period of time, or it can cause a sudden injury to the auditory mechanism.

Sometimes the auditory system can partly or completely recover from noise-related tinnitus or hearing loss. However, a repeated exposure to high level sounds result in permanent damage to the inner ear, leading to permanent hearing loss.


Sounds which enter the ear canal are transmitted by vibrations of the eardrum and middle ear to the inner ear. The inner ear, or cochlea, consists of three partitioned membrane chambers. The middle chamber is lined with tiny hair cells and filled with fluid. These hair cells are mechanically stimulated and bend as the fluid is moved by the vibrations sent from the middle ear. Each stimulated hair cell as it bends sends a message to the brain.

Excessive exposure to noise damages these inner ear hair cells. The damage is permanent and the hair cells cannot be replaced or re-grown. Injury to these hair receptors can cause loss of hearing sensitivity and are precursors to tinnitus. The onset of tinnitus can be gradual or sudden and in some cases the tinnitus will start before any loss of hearing is noticed. Some people find the tinnitus more disturbing than any hearing loss.

The degree of damage caused by loud sound is determined by intensity level of the sound and the amount of exposure time. Sound intensity, or volume, is measured in decibels (dB). This is not a slow progressive scale so the danger of noise can be easily misinterpreted. For example an increase in intensity level from 40 dB to 43 dB actually represents a doubling of the physical intensity. However, when listening to sound we actually need a change of about 6dB before we perceive the sound to be twice as loud. Generally, 85dB is the maximum allowable level at which you should be exposed to noise for an eight hour period. (As a rough guide 80-85dB is about the noise level on a busy road.) If you are exposed to sound louder than this, then the time you are subjected to the noise will need to be reduced to avoid hearing damage. The cumulative effect of ALL noise exposure over time results in damage to the auditory system.

Two forms of tinnitus are identified:

  • Dull hearing - feeling 'deaf' after noise exposure or at the end of the day
  • Tinnitus or noises in the ear or head after exposure
  • Muffled or distorted hearing
  • Sensation that people are mumbling
  • Loud sounds feel painful

Or, if you notice:

  • The car radio needs to be turned down in the morning (it was set louder when you last drove the car after work)
  • If you need to shout or raise your voice in order to speak to someone at an arm's length, the noise in that area is possibly dangerous to the ear

It is important to remember that the noise does not need to be unpleasant to cause damage to the auditory system. Often music, which you enjoy listening to, can be too loud and can be injuring your hearing!

What can you do to prevent hearing loss due to noise exposure?

There are many ways to avoid hearing loss and tinnitus caused by too much loud noise. First, you should consider eliminating the noise source. Removing or reducing the level of the noise at its source is the preferred and best option; alternatively, increase the distance between the noise source and the listener. This may be as simple as moving noisy equipment away from your work area, e.g. moving air compressors into an adjacent room, turning down the level of your home stereo or Walkman. Always consider the noise levels when purchasing new equipment. Purchasing quieter equipment can save workers' hearing in the long term. Noise barriers or other controls can also be considered to alter the noise pathway.

Sometimes, however, the above actions are not possible. In these cases, implementing job rotation can reduce the period of exposure in the workplace. Job rotation, or simply having a break, is an excellent way of reducing the amount of time spent in noisy areas. This can also reduce workers' fatigue levels.

You should wear personal hearing protection whenever you work around intense noise. There are many ear muffs and ear plugs available to protect ears from harmful noise. When selecting hearing protection consider its comfort, correct fit, the amount of blockage required to protect your ears and communication issues. There are also special plugs available for musicians, motor bike riders, night-shift workers and industrial workers.

A certified TPA Audiologist will be able to help you choose which type of ear protection is best for you.

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