What is hearing loss?
Hearing loss is also known as deaf. It is a condition whereby we are partly or totally unable to hear sound in one or both ears.
Aging and chronic exposure to loud noises are significant factors that contribute to hearing loss. Other factors, such as excessive earwax, can temporarily prevent your ears from conducting sounds as well as they should.
You can’t reverse most types of hearing loss. However, you and your doctor or a hearing specialist can take steps to improve what you hear.
How common is hearing loss?
Hearing loss can affect patients at any age. It can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of hearing loss?
The common symptoms of hearing loss are
- Muffling of speech and other sounds;
- Difficulty understanding words, especially against background noise or in a crowd of people;
- Trouble hearing consonants;
- Frequently asking others to speak more slowly, clearly and loudly;
- Needing to turn up the volume of the television or radio;
- Withdrawal from conversations;
- Avoidance of some social settings;
- Certain sounds seeming too loud;
- Difficulty following conversations when two or more people are talking;
- Trouble telling high-pitched sounds (such as “s” or “th”) from one another;
- Less trouble hearing men’s voices than women’s voices;
- Hearing voices as mumbled or slurred;
- Feeling of being off-balance or dizzy (more common with Ménière’s disease and acoustic neuroma);
- Feeling of pressure in the ear (in the fluid behind the eardrum);
- Ringing or buzzing sound in the ears (tinnitus).
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
You should contact your doctor if you have any of the following:
- Hearing problems interfere with your lifestyle.
- Hearing problems do not go away or become worse.
- The hearing is worse in one ear than the other.
- Sudden, severe hearing loss or ringing in the ears (tinnitus).
- Other symptoms, such as ear pain, along with hearing problems.
- New headaches, weakness, or numbness anywhere on your body.
If you have a sudden loss of hearing, particularly in one ear, seek immediate medical attention.
What causes hearing loss?
Conductive hearing loss (CHL) occurs because of a mechanical problem in the outer or middle ear. Causes of conductive hearing loss can often be treated. They include:
- Buildup of wax in the ear canal;
- Damage to the very small bones (ossicles) that are right behind the eardrum;
- Fluid remaining in the ear after an ear infection;
- Foreign object that is stuck in the ear canal;
- Hole in the eardrum;
- Scar on the eardrum from repeat infections.
Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) occurs when the tiny hair cells (nerve endings) that detect sound in the ear are injured, diseased, do not work correctly, or have died. This type of hearing loss often cannot be reversed. Sensorineural hearing loss is commonly caused by:
- Acoustic neuroma;
- Age-related hearing loss;
- Childhood infections, such as meningitis, mumps, scarlet fever, and measles;
- Regular exposure to loud noises (such as from work or recreation);
- Use of certain medicines.
Hearing loss may be present at birth (congenital) and can be due to:
- Birth defects that cause changes in the ear structures;
- Genetic conditions (more than 400 are known);
- Infections the mother passes to her baby in the womb (such as toxoplasmosis, rubella, or herpes.
The ear can also be injured by:
- Pressure differences between the inside and outside of the eardrum, often from scuba diving.
- Skull fractures (can damage the structures or nerves of the ear);
- Trauma from explosions, fireworks, gunfire, rock concerts, and earphones.
What increases my risk for hearing loss?
There are many risk factors for hearing loss, such as:
- Aging: Degeneration of delicate inner ear structures occurs over time.
- Loud noise: Exposure to loud sounds can damage the cells of your inner ear. Damage can occur with long-term exposure to loud noises, or from a short blast of noise, such as from a gunshot.
- Heredity: Your genetic makeup may make you more susceptible to ear damage from sound or deterioration from aging.
- Occupational noises: Jobs where loud noise is a regular part of the working environment, such as farming, construction or factory work, can lead to damage inside your ear.
- Recreational noises: Exposure to explosive noises, such as from firearms and jet engines, can cause immediate, permanent hearing loss. Other recreational activities with dangerously high noise levels include snowmobiling, motorcycling or listening to loud music.
- Some medications: Drugs, such as the antibiotic gentamicin and certain chemotherapy drugs, can damage the inner ear. Temporary effects on your hearing — ringing in the ear (tinnitus) or hearing loss — can occur if you take very high doses of aspirin, other pain relievers, antimalarial drugs or loop diuretics.
- Some illnesses: Diseases or illnesses that result in high fever, such as meningitis, may damage the cochlea
Diagnosis & treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is hearing loss diagnosed?
Tests to diagnose hearing loss may include:
- Physical exam: Your doctor will look in your ear for possible causes of your hearing loss, such as earwax or inflammation from an infection. Your doctor will also look for any structural causes of your hearing problems.
- General screening tests: Your doctor may ask you to cover one ear at a time to see how well you hear words spoken at various volumes and how you respond to other sounds.
- Tuning fork tests: Tuning forks are two-pronged, metal instruments that produce sounds when struck. Simple tests with tuning forks can help your doctor detect hearing loss. A tuning fork evaluation may also reveal whether hearing loss is caused by damage to the vibrating parts of your middle ear (including your eardrum), damage to sensors or nerves of your inner ear, or damage to both.
- Audiometer tests: During these more-thorough tests conducted by an audiologist, you wear earphones and hear sounds directed to one ear at a time. The audiologist presents a range of sounds of various tones and asks you to indicate each time you hear the sound. Each tone is repeated at faint levels to find out when you can barely hear. The audiologist will also present various words to determine your hearing ability.
How is hearing loss treated?
Treatment depends on the cause and severity of your hearing loss. Options include:
- Removing wax blockage: earwax blockage is a reversible cause of hearing loss. Your doctor may remove earwax by loosening it with oil and then flushing, scooping or suctioning out the softened wax.
- Surgical procedures: surgery may be necessary if you’ve had a traumatic ear injury or repeated infections that require the insertion of small tubes that help the ears drain.
- Hearing aids: if your hearing loss is due to damage to your inner ear, a hearing aid can help by making sounds stronger and easier for you to hear. An audiologist can discuss with you the potential benefits of using a hearing aid, recommend a device and fit you with it.
- Cochlear implants: if you have severe hearing loss, a cochlear implant may be an option for you. Unlike a hearing aid that amplifies sound and directs it into your ear canal, a cochlear implant compensates for damaged or nonworking parts of your inner ear. If you’re considering a cochlear implant, your audiologist, along with a medical doctor who specializes in disorders of the ears, nose and throat (ENT), can discuss the risks and benefits with you.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage hearing loss?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with hearing loss:
You can often flush wax buildup out of the ear (gently) with ear syringes (available in drug stores) and warm water. Wax softeners (like Cerumenex) may be needed if the wax is hard and stuck in the ear.
Being careful when removing foreign objects from the ear. Unless it is easy to get to, have your health care provider remove the object. Don’t use sharp instruments to remove foreign objects.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Review Date: December 3, 2016 | Last Modified: September 12, 2019
Treatments for Hearing Loss. http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/hearing-loss-treatment-options#1. Accessed October 19, 2016.
Hearing loss. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hearing-loss/basics/definition/con-20027684. Accessed October 19, 2016.
Hearing loss. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003044.htm. Accessed October 19, 2016.