Above: Image © Wikimedia Commons, Caldwella

I've gotten used to the constant buzzing that comes from my TV speakers when I turn on soccer, but many people watching at home have found the best thing to do is press the mute button.

Did you know? The smallest bone in the human body is in the inner ear, it is called the stapes or stirrup bone.

Unfortunately, fans at the stadium don't have that option, and they get the full sound of the vuvuzelas all game long. New research in the South African Medical Journal shows this prolonged noise exposure could end up causing permanent hearing loss.

Sound is caused by pressure waves moving through the air. The source of a sound compresses the nearby air, and that compression travels outwards through the air in a traveling wave - much the same way a wave from a splashing rock travels out across the surface of water. Through an intricate mechanical system inside your ear, sound gets converted into a signal that gets sent to your brain.

Did you know? There is no sound in space (there is no air to compress). Although they aren't silent in most movies, even explosions can't make a sound in space.

One of the main parts of the inner ear that allows us to hear is a fluid-filled part called the cochlea. The cochlea is lined with tiny hair cells, and the motion of these cells gets converted into an electrical signal that is sent to our brain to give it information about what we are hearing. Exposure to loud noises, especially for a long time, can permanently damage the hair cells, and therefore cause permanent hearing loss.

The loudness of sound is measured in decibels and long or repeated exposures to noise above 85 decibals can cause hair cell damage. The sound of the vuvuzela can be as high as 131 decibels at the horn opening — that's about how loud a jet engine is from only 100 feet away!

Did you know? Did you ever go home after a loud event, like a concert, and hear nothing but ringing as you laid down in the quiet to go to sleep? This is called tinnitus. One way tinnitus can occur is when the hair cells inside your ear are damaged from exposure to loud noise.

If you ever go to South Africa to watch soccer, make sure to bring earplugs!

Learn more:

vuvuzela as part of south african culture:


vuvuzela and hearing loss:


how the ear works:


hearing loss and damage:




Article first published on July 6, 2010.

Michael Rogers

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