Everyone experiences some level of noise sensitivity.
For certain individuals though, noise can be unbearable. Relatively quiet sounds such as conversation, the humming of a refrigerator or even your own voice can seem too loud or distorted.
For other people, noises don’t necessarily seem louder than they should, but certain sounds cause stress, anxiety or make them feel angry.
If you google “why are my ears so sensitive to noise” you will mainly find information about hyperacusis, which is a particular type of noise sensitivity.
However, this isn’t the only type of noise sensitivity. In fact, it’s actually one of the rarest types.
Most people who feel like they are overly sensitive to noise don’t fit the diagnosis for hyperacusis.
Is it Hyperacusis or Something Else?
Hyperacusis is just one of several types of noise sensitivity. If noise sensitivity is reducing your quality of life, you should seek out a professional to get a diagnosis.
Here’s an overview of some of the different types of noise sensitivity.
According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation, true hyperacusis is rare, affecting roughly 1 in every 50,000 people (source).
This makes hyperacusis less common than other noise sensitivity issues such as misophonia, which could affect about 15% of the general population (source).
The main symptom of hyperacusis is that everyday noises seem very loud. This type of noise sensitivity isn’t limited to particular sounds. It can affect one or both ears, and can come on gradually or suddenly.
The NHS recommend seeing your about hyperacusis if everyday noises seem too loud. Examples of everyday noises that could sound too loud include:
- Car engines
- Barking dogs
- Jingling coins
- People chewing
- Running taps
In hyperacusis, the brain appears to amplify certain vibrations detected by your ears, a bit like how electronic ear defenders amplify quiet sounds in your environment.
Misophonia is a type of selective sound sensitivity that makes people intensely dislike certain sounds. It’s not currently classed as a medical condition, but appears to be a very common phenomenon.
The word misophonia was coined in 2000 and comes from the Greek words mîsos (hatred) and phōnē (sound), so it literally means “hatred of sound”.
People with this misophonia often feel angry when they hear particular trigger sounds.
By far the most common trigger sounds are those associated with the mouth, such as chewing, slurping, drinking and whispering. It can also be triggered by repetitive sounds such as the clicking of keys on a computer keyboard, or the rustling of a crisp packet.
Misophonia is quite easy to distinguish from hyperacusis because it’s triggered by certain sounds, usually those produced by the mouth. Hyperacusis, by contrast, affects processing of a much wider range of sounds.
Phonophobia is an anxiety disorder characterised by a fear of loud sounds.
While almost everyone finds that sudden loud sounds make them jump, those with phonophobia can feel intense fear and experience panic attacks.
The symptoms of phonophobia are explained in this article on the Anxiety UK website.
People who suffer from phonophobia often don’t have anything physically wrong with their ears, unlike in hyperacusis.
Recruitment is a type of noise sensitivity that occurs in some people with hearing loss.
People with recruitment perceive some moderate-volume sounds as too loud.
This happens when the volume of the sound increases from a point at which the individual can’t hear it and crosses the threshold of their hearing, at which point the hair cells and their nerve endings in the cochlea are ‘recruited’, causing a sudden sensation of loud sound.
This can happen when a person with hearing loss is having a conversation and asks the other person to speak louder. The other person increases their volume slightly, but it sounds much louder to the person with hearing loss.
Autism-related noise sensitivity
Individuals on the autism spectrum can experience a range of noise sensitivity issues.
Autism-related noise sensitivity is rarely true hyperacusis, which has a narrower definition.
Autistic people often find noises overwhelming, and find it hard to filter out noises that other people might not notice.
It can be hard for autistic people to concentrate in noisy places, as the different sounds can get muddled. This could make concentrating on a conversation hard, if the autistic person can’t filter out other conversations around them.
Many autistic people find that wearing ear defenders in noisy places helps improve their quality of life.
Difference Between Hyperacusis and Tinnitus
Tinnitus is the perception of a ringing, hissing or buzzing in the ears even in the absence of the presence of a sound source.
Hyperacusis is the perception of everyday sounds as being exceptionally loud.
Tinnitus can hyperacusis can occur at the same time, but not everyone with one of these conditions has the other.
Tinnitus is much more common than hyperacusis, affecting about 1 in 10 people (source). Hyperacusis only affects about 1 in 50,000. Therefore, most people with tinnitus don’t have hyperacusis.
As you can see, there are lots of conditions which manifest themselves as a sensitivity to noise. It’s important to seek a professional opinion if noise sensitivity is reducing your quality of life.