What is hearing loss?

Hearing Loss

Hearing loss: Overview

Hearing loss is a sudden or slow decrease in how well you hear. It can range from slight to profound. Permanent hearing loss can occur with aging. It also can happen when you are exposed long-term to loud noise. Examples include listening to loud music, riding motorcycles, or being around other loud machines.

Hearing loss can affect your work and home life. It can make you feel lonely or depressed. You may feel that you have lost your independence. But hearing aids and other devices can help you hear better and feel connected to others.

Hearing loss

Hearing loss is a sudden or gradual decrease in how well you can hear. It can happen slowly or suddenly. And it can range from slight to profound. It's often a natural result of aging. But it can affect people of all ages. Long exposure to loud noise can make it worse.

If hearing loss is caused by something that can be treated, hearing will sometimes come back. But most hearing loss is permanent. Hearing aids and other devices can help.

What happens when you have hearing loss?

Hearing loss can happen slowly or suddenly. It's often a natural result of aging. Long exposure to loud noise can make it worse. If hearing loss is caused by something that can be treated, hearing will sometimes come back. But most hearing loss is permanent. Hearing aids and other devices can help.

What are the symptoms of hearing loss?

Common symptoms of hearing loss include:

  • Muffled hearing and a feeling that your ear is plugged.
  • Trouble understanding what people are saying. This is most common when other people are talking or when there is background noise.
  • Listening to the TV or radio at a higher volume than in the past.

Other symptoms may include:

  • A ringing, roaring, hissing, or buzzing in the ear (tinnitus).
  • Ear pain, itching, or irritation.
  • Pus or fluid leaking from the ear.
  • A feeling that you or your surroundings are spinning (vertigo).

People who have hearing loss are sometimes not aware of it. Often, family members or friends are the first to notice the hearing loss.

Social situations can be tiring and stressful for people who don't hear well. They may start to avoid those situations as their hearing loss gets worse. Many adults become depressed because of how hearing loss affects their relationships and social life.

What are some different types of hearing loss?

Hearing loss can be temporary or permanent.

  • In conductive hearing loss, sound is blocked before it reaches the inner ear. This type of hearing loss may be temporary or reversible. For example, a buildup of wax in the ear or an ear infection can cause hearing loss that goes away with treatment.
  • In sensorineural hearing loss, sound reaches the inner ear. But a problem in the inner ear or in the nerves that allow you to hear prevents proper hearing. This type of hearing loss is usually permanent. Hearing loss caused by exposure to loud noise over time is an example of this type of hearing loss. Another example is age-related hearing loss.
  • In mixed hearing loss, you have both sensorineural and conductive hearing loss.

Hearing loss can range from slight to moderate to profound.

How is hearing loss treated?

Treatment depends on the type and cause of the hearing loss. Your doctor can help you choose the best treatment.

Permanent hearing loss.

Proper treatment is important. Hearing loss may lead to loneliness, depression, and loss of independence. Treatment can make communication, social interaction, and daily activities easier and more enjoyable.

  • Treatment can't bring back your hearing. But hearing devices, such as hearing aids, can help you hear and communicate better. Other devices can help alert you to sounds around the house, like the phone or doorbell.
  • Cochlear implants may be an option.
  • You can learn ways to live with reduced hearing, such as paying attention to people's gestures, facial expressions, posture, and tone of voice.
Reversible hearing loss.

Reversible hearing loss can often be treated successfully. Treatment depends on its cause. For example, removing earwax or taking medicine for an infection may help your hearing come back.

Preventing hearing loss not caused by noise

Being exposed to loud noise over and over is one of the most common causes of permanent hearing loss. But there are other causes of hearing loss. Here are some steps you can take to lower your risk of other types of hearing loss.

  • Don't put anything in your ear.

    Never stick a cotton swab, hairpin, or other object in your ear to try to remove earwax or to scratch your ear. The best way to prevent earwax problems is to leave earwax alone.

  • Swallow and yawn during a plane landing.

    If you have an upper respiratory problem (such as a cold, the flu, or a sinus infection), take a decongestant a few hours before landing or use a decongestant spray just before landing.

  • Stop smoking.

    You are more likely to have hearing loss if you smoke.

  • Get immunizations.

    Receive all the recommended immunizations to protect against pneumococcal disease, meningitis, and other conditions that can cause hearing problems.

How is hearing loss diagnosed?

To diagnose hearing loss, your doctor will do a physical exam and ask about your symptoms and past health. Your doctor also may look in your ears with a lighted device called an otoscope.

If your doctor thinks that you have hearing loss, you'll have hearing tests to check whether you have hearing loss and find out how severe it is. You may be referred to an audiologist for the tests. These tests may include:

  • Tuning fork tests.
  • Pure tone audiometry.
  • Speech reception and word recognition tests.
  • Otoacoustic emissions test.
  • Auditory brain stem response test.
  • Tympanometry.
  • Other tests to find out what kind of hearing loss you have, or which part of your ear is affected.

You may be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist for other tests or treatments.

How can you care for yourself when you have hearing loss?

  • Avoid loud noises whenever possible. This helps keep your hearing from getting worse.
  • Always wear hearing protection around loud noises.
  • Wear a hearing aid as directed.
    • A professional can help you pick a hearing aid that will work best for you.
    • You can also get hearing aids over the counter for mild to moderate hearing loss.
  • Have hearing tests as your doctor suggests. They can show whether your hearing has changed. Your hearing aid may need to be adjusted.
  • Use other devices as needed. These may include:
    • Telephone amplifiers and hearing aids that can connect to a television, stereo, radio, or microphone.
    • Devices that use lights or vibrations. These alert you to the doorbell, a ringing telephone, or a baby monitor.
    • Television closed-captioning. This shows the words at the bottom of the screen. Most new TVs can do this.
    • TTY (text telephone). This lets you type messages back and forth on the telephone instead of talking or listening. These devices are also called TDD. When messages are typed on the keyboard, they are sent over the phone line to a receiving TTY. The message is shown on a monitor.
  • Use text messaging, social media, and email if it is hard for you to communicate by telephone.
  • Try to learn a listening technique called speechreading. It is not lipreading. You pay attention to people's gestures, expressions, posture, and tone of voice. These clues can help you understand what a person is saying. Face the person you are talking to, and have them face you. Make sure the lighting is good. You need to see the other person's face clearly.
  • Think about counseling if you need help to adjust to your hearing loss.

Improving communication with someone who has hearing loss

It's easy for a person with hearing loss to feel cut off from conversations and social interactions. But you can take steps to help keep this from happening.

  • Make sure the person knows that you are speaking to them.

    It can help to use the person's name.

  • Speak to the person at a distance of 3 ft (1 m) to 6 ft (2 m) .

    Make sure that the person can see your face, mouth, and gestures. Arrange furniture and lighting so that everyone in the conversation is visible.

  • Don't speak directly into the person's ear.

    Your facial expressions and gestures can provide helpful clues about what you are saying.

  • Speak slightly louder than normal.

    It's best to speak slowly and clearly. But don't shout.

  • Don't repeat the same word over and over again.

    If a certain word or phrase isn't understood, find another way to say it.

  • Tell the person when the topic of conversation changes.
  • Cut down on background noise.
    • Turn off the TV or radio during conversations.
    • Ask for quiet sections in restaurants.
    • Try to sit away from the door at theaters.
  • Include the person in group conversations.

    Don't talk about the person as though the person isn't there.

What is hearing loss?

Hearing loss is a sudden or gradual decrease in how well you can hear. Gradual hearing loss happens over time. It can affect people of all ages. Hearing loss may range from slight to profound. Depending on the cause, hearing loss may improve with treatment (reversible) or be lasting (permanent).

What causes hearing loss?

The most common causes of hearing loss are:

Noise.

Noise-induced hearing loss can happen slowly over time. Being exposed to everyday noises, such as listening to very loud music or using a power lawn mower, can damage the structures of the inner ear. This can lead to permanent hearing loss. Sudden, loud noises, such as an explosion, can also damage your hearing.

Aging.

In age-related hearing loss, changes in the inner ear that happen as you get older cause a slow but steady hearing loss. The loss may be mild or severe. It is always permanent.

Other causes of hearing loss include earwax buildup, an object in the ear, injury to the ear or head, an ear infection, a ruptured eardrum, and other conditions that affect the middle or inner ear. Some medicines also can cause it. And some people are born with hearing problems.

Hearing loss: When to call

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You think your hearing is getting worse.
  • You have new symptoms, such as dizziness or nausea.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.