Do Airbags Cause Hearing Loss?
Most of you know that this newsletter has a companion website called
Hearing Loss Web (http://www.hearinglossweb.com) One of the features of
our website is a reader forum (http://www.hearinglossweb.com/discus),
where people can exchange ideas about a variety of hearing loss topics.
One of the topics that I found especially interesting was an exchange
about air bags damaging hearing.
It began with a post from a young person who said (in part):
"Last week I was involved in what should have been a minor car
accident. I wasn't paying attention and 'gently' hit the car in front of
me, which was stopped for a light.
"What happened next was terrifying. The inside of the car seemed
to explode in a deafening roar. I had an unimaginable pain in both ears
and considerable bleeding from my ear canals. I also had a very loud
ringing and was virtually deaf.
"I was taken to the hospital where it was quickly determined
that my eardrums had ruptured. I was referred to an ENT who said they
should heal in 2-3 weeks but possibly with some scar tissue that would
affect my ability to hear low sounds. As for the ringing, he said that
could be permanent. He also said I had suffered inner ear damage that
would affect my high frequency hearing although he said it was hard to
tell how much. He concluded by saying I would need to face life 'hearing
impaired' and may need to look at hearing aids.
"I just can't believe this. What has our government done in
requiring air bags that leave passengers deafened from minor accidents.
I have always protected my hearing and never would have thought about
going to loud concerts or auto races without effective ear protection.
I'm only 22 and I can barely hear conversation in a quiet room. With
background noise, I am almost deaf."
The next few posts were from people who had similar experiences. Some
reported that their hearing had returned to near normal, while others
reported that their hearing had not.
Then a practicing ENT replied, stating that he has treated several
folks for airbag-related conditions. He posted the following
"This is a big problem that needs concerted attention. I'm a
practicing ENT who has treated a number of patients with air bag induced
"I'd like to outline the facts as I see them. When an airbag is
deployed, there is a loud "explosion" caused by the rapid
escape of high pressure air. This is what gives the protection the air
bag is designed for. Sound levels for this deployment have been
extensively studied and generally will not cause permanent hearing
damage in most cases. The noise is hazardous, but most of us will not
experience more than 1 or 2 air bag deployments in a lifetime. Serious
ear injury is likely to only occur if the person's ear is right next to
the airbag when it goes off. This is almost impossible for the driver
but can occur for the passenger. For most people, the impact of an
airbag will be a TSS that may cause several hours of ringing and hearing
"The problem that hasn't really been studied is the associated
concussion that will occur in the car. The magnitude of this will be
determined by the interior volume of the car, the number of air bags
deployed, and whether windows are open or shut.
"Small cars, with closed windows, are clearly the worst. The
other factor is the physical size of a person's ear canals. People with
small or average ear canals (or the opening to the ear canal) will have
the impact of the concussion moderated. For people with large or extra
large canals, the full force of the concussion will strike their
eardrums, sometimes with catastrophic results. Eardrums can be ruptured,
the delicate bones of the middle ear can be dislocated, and major inner
ear damage can occur. I have treated over 10 patients that experienced
this level of injury. All suffered some degree of permanent hearing
loss. For reasons I can't explain, 9 of them were women. I believe
women, in general, are more susceptible to ear damage than men."
A second ENT then replied, stating that he believes that the number
of people whose hearing is damaged by airbags is in the thousands. He
believes that cars need to be designed with built-in concussion relief,
so the concussion effects described above do not occur. He also thinks
that airbag sensitivities should be adjusted so that they are not
deployed in a fender bender. He points out that a bloody nose or chipped
tooth is preferable to a lifetime of hearing loss.
He also proposes a (somewhat tedious) partial solution. He suggests
that people pack cotton very loosely in the openings of their ear
canals, stating that this will not affect hearing, but will effectively
moderate airbag concussion.
Having read all this, I'm surprised that we haven't heard more about
the dangers that airbags pose to hearing. It does sound like a serious
problem that needs to be addressed. Ideas?