Hearing protection is just the generic name for devices that you place over or in your ears to reduce the sound reaching them. Typically, you’ll either use:

  • Earplugs that fit into the ear canal
  • Earmuffs worn over your ears
  • Semi-insert earplugs that fit partially into the ear canal and are connected to each other via a rigid band

In this post, we will take a look at how loud sounds cause hearing loss and how hearing protection prevents this. 

Why Do Loud Noises Damage The Ears?

Loud noises are harmful to a part of the inner ear called the cochlear. Listening to prolonged loud sounds (or a single extremely loud burst) can damage the cells and membranes in this small organ, preventing it from transmitting signals to the brain. 

Prolonged loud noise exposure can also damage the thousands of tiny sound-sensing hairs that line the interior of the cochlear. At birth, the average person has around 16,000 sound-sensing hairs inside the cochlear. However, people who frequently expose themselves to loud noises can have 30-50% less by the time they reach middle age. And this adversely affects their ability to hear. 

How Hearing Protection Stops Loud Noises

Fortunately, hearing protection can stop loud noises from causing damage. It works by absorbing and scattering the energy of incoming sound waves, making them substantially less energetic by the time they reach the inner ear. 

Manufacturers measure the protection of earplugs and muffs by calculating their Noise Reduction Rating (NRR). So, for instance, if an earplug has an NRR of 25, it means that the manufacturer expects it to reduce the sound getting to the ears by 25 dB. 

The way earplugs and earmuffs work is slightly different. Earmuffs are designed to fit most people and provide sound protection by covering the entire exterior of the outer ear. 

Many earmuffs also contain electronic parts. These allow for communication or send out signals to neutralize incoming sounds.

By contrast, earplugs work by blocking loud sounds as they travel through the ear canal. The foam or silicone they are made of absorbs the incoming energy, dispersing it in all directions. 

Please note that you can wear earmuffs and plugs together to reduce incoming sounds even further. However, the NRR does not increase additively, meaning that you can’t just add the NRRs of the earplugs and earmuffs to get the total noise reduction.

You can also get what is known as “level-dependent” hearing protection

These smart devices allow you to hear noises when they are quiet and safe but block out sounds once they go over a particular threshold.

Hearing protection devices, such as earplugs and earmuffs, are something that audiologists recommend for anyone exposed to loud noises. They are powerful tools to mitigate non-age-related damage to your ears, allowing you to hear for longer.