Sensitivity to Noise Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions
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Understand sensitivity to noise symptoms, including 7 causes & common questions.
Sensitivity to noise symptoms
If you have ever experienced a migraine or a hangover, you likely experienced noise sensitivity (hyperacusis). People talking, cars honking, pans clinking, and printers printing can become quite bothersome as each tiny noise is an insult to your brain. Such an auditory barrage can rapidly become unbearable.
Your ear is more complicated than its appearance would lead on. Deep to your external ear and ear canal are two areas called the "middle ear" and "inner ear." These regions contain tiny bony structures which conduct the sounds from the outside world to miniscule cells that turn those sounds into the nerve signals that your brain can interpret. This system is fairly complicated. If one piece falls out of place, you can experience sensitivity to certain noises or hearing loss.
Common accompanying symptoms of noise sensitivity
Noise sensitivity may be associated with these common symptoms:
Sensitivity to noise causes
Noise sensitivity is a symptom of a number of different conditions, most of which represent damage to the fragile hearing structures mentioned above.
Environmental causes may be related to certain exposures or events.
- Infection: Certain infections attack the structures of the ear and can cause damage leading to noise sensitivity or hearing loss.
- Acoustic damage: Acute or long-term exposure to loud noise can damage the structures of the ear, leading to hearing loss or, counterintuitively, noise sensitivity.
- Head injury: Trauma to the head or ears can cause damage to the tiny, fragile structures of the ear, leading to hearing loss or sensitivity to noise.
- Drugs and toxins: Various drugs and environmental toxins can damage the ears, leading to noise sensitivity. One classic example is the hangover a night of heavy drinking can lead to a morning of pain, including temporary hypersensitivity to noise.
Neurological causes of noise sensitivity may include the following.
- Headache: Certain types of headaches such as migraines are associated with noise sensitivity, as well as other strange sensory symptoms.
- Nerve dysfunction: Some conditions which attack the nerves of the ear can cause noise sensitivity.
Other causes of noise sensitivity may be related to the following.
- Autoimmune: Certain autoimmune conditions, where your immune cells get confused and attack your own body, can lead to noise sensitivity.
- Psychiatric: Some mental health conditions promote strong reactions to loud noises.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
New, or new-onset, migraine means the person has never experienced a migraine headache before. A migraine is a one-sided headache that causes intense pain and throbbing due to blood vessels dilating in the brain.
The exact reason for new-onset migraine headache is not known, but a number of causes are being studied:
- Soy isoflavone supplements, especially in men.
- Use and overuse of certain medications.
- Traumatic head injury.
- Angioma, which is a cluster of dilated blood vessels in the brain.
- A complication of surgery for some heart conditions.
Anyone with a sudden severe headache should be seen by a medical provider, so that a more serious cause can be ruled out. A transient ischemic attack, also known as TIA or mini-stroke, can have symptoms similar to a migraine but is far more serious.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and imaging such as a CT scan.
Treatment for migraine varies with the individual. Lifestyle changes may be recommended and there are a number of medications that may be tried.
Top Symptoms: new headache, fatigue, nausea, mild headache, headache that worsens when head moves
Symptoms that always occur with new migraine: new headache
Symptoms that never occur with new migraine: fever, diarrhea, productive cough, headache resulting from a head injury
Concussion not needing imaging
A traumatic brain injury (TBI), or concussion, happens when a bump, blow, jolt, or other head injury causes damage to the brain. Every year, millions of people in the U.S. suffer brain injuries. More than half are bad enough that people must go to the hospital, and the worst injuries can lead to permanent brain damage or death.
Top Symptoms: dizziness, irritability, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping
Symptoms that always occur with concussion not needing imaging: head or face injury
Symptoms that never occur with concussion not needing imaging: recent fall from 6 feet or higher, severe vomiting, posttraumatic amnesia over 30 minutes, slurred speech, fainting, moderate vomiting
Urgency: Primary care doctor
A hangover from alcohol use is an uncomfortable constellation of symptoms that usually occur after an episode of heavy or binge drinking.
These symptoms include dehydration, depression, headache, anxiety, appetite suppression, difficulty concentrating, nausea, and sleepiness. The severity of a hangover is deter..
An exertion or activity-related headache occurs as a result of strenuous activity. This type of headache is often triggered by exercise.
Top Symptoms: headache, sensitivity to light, sensitivity to noise, headache with a pressing or tightening quality, headache near both temples
Symptoms that always occur with exertion headache: headache
Symptoms that never occur with exertion headache: vomiting, double vision, fever
Post-concussion syndrome is a set of symptoms that can occur after a head injury. A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury that involves confusion and memory loss, with or without a loss of consciousness. Post-concussion syndrome typically occurs after concuss..
Cluster headache (first attack)
A "new onset" cluster headache means that the person has never experienced a cluster headache before. These headaches most commonly start after age 20.
A cluster headache is characterized by intense pain on one side of the forehead, especially over one eye. It often strikes in "clusters," meaning the headache comes and goes frequently. It may occur at about the same time of day for several days or weeks in a row.
The specific cause for cluster headache is not known. Drinking alcohol, breathing strong fumes, exercising to the point of becoming overheated, and heavy smoking are all possible triggers.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, since there is no specific test for cluster headache. Blood tests, neurologic tests, and imaging such as a CT scan or MRI may be done to rule out any other cause for the new onset of head pain.
Referral will be made to a headache specialist, who can offer new treatments to help the patient manage the symptoms and improve quality of life.
Top Symptoms: new headache, severe headache, nausea, throbbing headache, congestion
Symptoms that always occur with cluster headache (first attack): severe headache, new headache
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
Dislocation of the jaw
A jaw dislocation is when the bones of the mandible (lower jaw) come unhinged from the bones of the side of the head.
Top Symptoms: jaw pain from an injury, locking or dislocating jaw
Symptoms that always occur with dislocation of the jaw: jaw pain from an injury
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
Sensitivity to noise treatments and relief
The most common causes of noise sensitivity can be managed at home. Noise sensitivity associated with a headache (such as during a migraine), is annoying but manageable and not representative of damage to your hearing. However, any sort of chronic noise sensitivity or rapid onset noise sensitivity without a clear cause warrants a visit to your physician. In these cases, the symptom may represent damage to the structures in your ear and acts as a warning sign for irreversible hearing loss.
At-home noise sensitivity treatments
You can begin addressing your noise sensitivity symptoms at home with the following methods.
- Rest: If you can, resting in a dark and quiet room can help with noise sensitivity until the symptom passes.
- Avoidance: Noise sensitivity triggered by exposure to loud noises can be mitigated by avoiding those noises, or by use of proper protective equipment.
- Medication: If your noise sensitivity is the result of a migraine, certain over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or NSAIDs such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can help alleviate the symptom. Migraine medications containing several ingredients including caffeine, such as Excedrin Headache, can also be quite helpful.
- Hydration: Keeping yourself appropriately hydrated can be of use in getting rid of noise sensitivity, specifically in the case of a hangover.
Medical noise sensitivity treatments
After consulting your physician for persistent noise sensitivity, he or she may recommend the following.
- Hearing test: If you visit a doctor complaining of noise sensitivity, they will likely test your hearing and take a look inside your ear with an otoscope.
- Medications: Your doctor may prescribe certain medications to help control the root cause of your noise sensitivity, such as powerful anti-migraine medications.
- Hearing aids: If your noise sensitivity is associated with hearing loss, you may be recommended to get hearing aids.
- Therapy: For certain conditions, progressive exposure to loud noises or behavioral therapy may be used to help retrain your ears' sensitivity.
When noise sensitivity is an emergency
You should seek help without delay if you have:
Questions your doctor may ask about sensitivity to noise
- Does light bother your eyes more than usual?
- Have you experienced any nausea?
- Are you experiencing a headache?
- Have you noticed any vision changes?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Sensitivity to noise statistics
People who have experienced sensitivity to noise have also experienced:
- 13% Sensitivity To Light
- 8% Headache
- 7% Nausea
People who have experienced sensitivity to noise were most often matched with:
- 66% Concussion Not Needing Imaging
- 16% New Migraine
- 16% Hangover
Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).
Jesse Passman is a PGY-1 surgery resident. He graduated from Rice University with a BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and received his MD from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. During medical school, Jesse performed work in public health and surgery, taking a year-out to pursue an MPH at the University of Pennsylvania and do research in global surgery and the public health implications and clinical outcomes of trauma. In his free time, Jesse likes to travel, hike, backpack, and cycle.
- Hyperacusis. NHS. Updated July 3, 2016. NHS Link
- Noise-Induced Hearing Loss. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). Updated February 7, 2017. NIDCD Link
- Woodhouse A, Drummond PD. Mechanisms of Increased Sensitivity to Noise and Light in Migraine Headache. Cephalalgia. 1993;13(6):417-421. NCBI Link
- Hyperacusis: Signs and Symptoms. UCSF Health. UCSF Health Link
- Headaches and Dehydration. National Headache Foundation. National Headache Foundation Link