What Is Acoustic Trauma?

Symptoms of acoustic trauma

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

What Is Acoustic Trauma?

Acoustic trauma is hearing loss that happens as a result of a sudden, loud noise, or from ongoing exposure to loud noises. Examples of loud noises that may cause acoustic trauma include gunshots or explosions near the ear. Continued exposure to loud music or machinery that emits high-volume sounds can also cause acoustic trauma.

Many people experience acoustic trauma on the job, such as people who work in the military or the music business. Acoustic trauma can cause damage to the inner ear, and while treatment may be effective in some cases, acoustic trauma can result in permanent hearing loss.

Symptoms of Acoustic Trauma

Acoustic trauma unusually causes some form of hearing loss. If the trauma was caused by a sudden, loud noise, such as a gunshot or other explosion, you might begin to experience hearing loss soon after the event. Even then, the hearing loss might come on more slowly, with your symptoms gradually getting worse.

At other times—especially if your exposure to the loud noises occurred over a more gradual period of time—it might take months or years for the hearing loss symptoms to become obvious to you.

There are times that hearing loss from sudden and loud noises only causes a temporary loss of hearing, for the next few days after the triggering sound occurs.

But as the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders explains, even when your hearing loss seems to be temporary, you may experience residual symptoms on an ongoing basis.

There is a spectrum of hearing disability, and symptoms of acoustic trauma don’t just involve an inability to hear out of one or both of your ears.

Here are some of the main symptoms of acoustic trauma, and how you might experience it:

  • You may notice that sounds you used to hear well now sound muffled or indistinct
  • You may find yourself asking people to speak louder
  • You might find yourself turning up the TV, sound system, or volume on your phone more often
  • You might experience symptoms of tinnitus, which includes a ringing in your ear, or a feeling of buzzing in your head
  • The hearing impairments may include one of your ears or both
  • Hearing loss may generally impact your ability to communicate with others

Identifying Acoustic Trauma

If you suspect that you have experienced acoustic trauma and have noticed hearing loss or changes in your hearing, you should visit a doctor. You can visit your primary care doctor, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor), or an audiologist.

According to American Family Physician, if you have experienced sudden hearing loss, it’s important to meet with a physician as promptly as possible for diagnosis and treatment.

In order to understand the type of hearing loss you are experiencing, your doctor will run a series of screening tests to diagnose you. These screenings may include:

  • A history of your experience with hearing loss, including what sounds may have caused the loss, how and when your hearing loss presented, and any other health conditions you have that may be contributing
  • A physical examination of your external ear, internal ear canal, as well as an examination for your head and neck, noting any abnormalities
  • An audiometric evaluation will likely be performed, which is a series of tests used to evaluate your hearing
  • Tests may include an audiogram, where you wear headphones or earbuds, and listen to a series of sounds, and indicate which you can can’t hear

Other tests may include screenings to evaluate your ability to understand speech (spoken words) as well as tests to examine how well your ear drum functions when sounds are emitted.

Causes of Acoustic Trauma

Acoustic trauma happens as a result of either exposure to a sudden loud noise, or to ongoing exposure to loud noises. Some examples of loud sounds that can cause acoustic trauma include:

  • Gunshots
  • Sudden explosions that occur near the ear
  • Participation on a regular basis in activities that include loud sounds, like hunting, riding a snowmobile, listening to loud music on headphones, or playing in a music or rock band
  • Having a job that exposes you to loud sounds, like working in a woodshop, or working as a gardener who uses lawnmowers and leaf blowers

The type of job you have may increase the likelihood that you will experience acoustic trauma.

Besides people who work with heavy machinery, and people who work in the military have high incidences of acoustic trauma. For example, acoustic trauma and tinnitus are among the most common disabilities experienced by military veterans. Over 765,000 veterans of the Gulf War era experienced hearing loss related to acoustic trauma.

Not all loud sounds will automatically cause hearing loss. Hearing loss depends on several factors, including how many decibels the sound emits, as well as how long you are exposed to the sound.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, sounds under 70 A-weighted decibels (dBA) aren’t likely to cause hearing loss. However, sounds over 85 dBA are likely to, especially if you are exposed over longer periods of time or on a repeated basis. How close or far you are from the sound is also a factor that can determine whether or not you will experience hearing loss. The farther away you can stay from loud sounds, the better.

Treatment for Acoustic Trauma

Medical treatment for acoustic trauma will depend on the type of hearing loss you are experiencing as well as what treatments your medical team thinks will work best for your case.

It’s important to understand that often, full hearing can’t be restored. Instead, treatment may be aimed at preventing further hearing loss from happening and trying to restore as much of your hearing loss as possible.

Some of the common treatments used for hearing loss that results from acoustic trauma include:

  • Eardrum repair
  • Hearing aids
  • Steroid treatment

Whether you already have hearing loss from acoustic trauma, or if you are concerned that this is something you may experience in the future, taking a preventative approach to hearing loss is key. Here are some tips:

  • Educate yourself and your family about what types of noises can cause hearing loss
  • Use protective ear devices (ear plugs and ear muffs) when you are involved in activities that may expose you to loud noises
  • Create some distance between yourself and the loud noise to reduce exposure
  • Advocate for yourself if you believe your work conditions are hazardous to your hearing
  • Visit a doctor promptly if you believe you might have experienced acoustic trauma

Coping With Acoustic Trauma

Educating yourself about hearing loss, and learning what resources are out there to support you can be helpful and empowering as you move through this experience. Everyone’s experience of hearing loss is a little different and there is no one right answer for how you will cope. Some people find that learning sign language or reading lips is helpful; others will rely more heavily on hearing assisted technology.

If your hearing loss is affecting your ability to work, you should know that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires your job to give you accommodations based on your hearing loss.

Experiencing hearing loss can have profound effects on your ability to communicate with others and can impact your personal and professional relationships. People who experience acoustic trauma may have increased rates of depression, and hearing loss can have profound effects on your quality of life.

You can find emotional support from a counselor or therapist who can help you process and manage your feelings about your hearing loss, as well as help you navigate life after hearing loss. Joining a hearing loss support group can be a wonderful way to connect with others who are going through similar challenges.

Some national support groups for people who live with hearing loss include:

If you or a loved one are struggling with depression, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Maybe the most important thing to know if you have experienced acoustic trauma is that you are not alone. Unfortunately, acoustic trauma and hearing loss is something that affects people of all ages, from children to older people. It’s estimated that as many as 40 million adults—or 24% of the American adult population—have some signs of hearing loss as a result of exposure to loud noises.

Again, if you suspect that you may have experienced acoustic trauma, it’s vital that you get screened for hearing loss sooner than later. Importantly, you should not ignore the emotional impact that hearing loss may have on you. Seeking therapy or joining a support group can be essential as you cope with hearing loss.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus website. Acoustic trauma. Updated April 13, 2020. 

  2. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Noise-Induced Hearing Loss. Updated May 31, 2019.

  3. Michels T, Duffy M, Rogers D. Hearing Loss in Adults: Differential Diagnosis and Treatment. American Family Physician. 2019;100(2):98-108.

  4. Esquivel C, Parker M, Curtis K, et al. Aural Blast Injury/Acoustic Trauma and Hearing Loss. Military Medicine. 2018;183(2):78–82. doi:10.1093/milmed/usy167

  5. MedlinePlus website. Audiometry. Updated April 13, 2020. 

  6. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Support Services for Adults. Updated November 18, 2010.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.