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You ear has three major parts: your outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. When damage to your outer or middle ear causes hearing loss, it is called conductive hearing loss.

This type of hearing loss makes it hard to hear soft or low volume sounds. Conductive hearing loss may be either temporary or permanent, depending on the cause.

Read on to learn more about this type of hearing loss.

Conductive hearing loss happens as a result of blockage or damage to either the outer or middle part of your ear.

This makes it difficult for sounds to reach your inner ear, which makes it very hard for you to hear soft sounds.

Conductive hearing loss has several causes. Many of them are temporary and can be corrected with treatment.

Conductive hearing loss impacts how well you hear sounds.

Generally, people with conductive hearing loss have difficulty hearing sounds at low volumes. This can lead to turning the sound up on headphones or on televisions and speakers.

Additional symptoms of conductive hearing loss include:

  • sudden hearing loss
  • hearing loss that seems to steadily get worse
  • pain in one or both of your ears
  • pressure in one or both of your ears
  • dizziness
  • a strange or unpleasant smell coming from your ear
  • liquid drainage from your ear

Conductive hearing loss happens when sounds are unable to reach your inner ear. This can be caused by a complication with your outer ear or your middle ear.

Complications with your outer ear that cause conductive hearing loss include:

  • a small object or insect stuck in your ear canal
  • a buildup of earwax in your ear canal
  • a bony lesion growing your ear
  • infections to your ear canal, such as swimmer’s ear
  • fluid in your ear
  • abnormalities in the structure of your ear canal
  • narrowing of your ear canal

Complications with your middle ear that can cause conductive hearing loss include:

  • middle ear infections and fluid buildup
  • Injury to your eardrum
  • a hole in your eardrum
  • pressure in your ear that causes your eardrum to collapse
  • thickening of your eardrum
  • growths of excess skin cells in your middle ear
  • damage to the bones of your middle ear
  • an inherited condition called otosclerosis, which causes the middle ear bone to have an atypical structure

What are the types of hearing loss?

There are three main types of hearing loss. The biggest difference between types is the part of your ears that they affect. Types of hearing loss include:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent and is the most common type of hearing loss. It can be caused by damage to the cells of your inner ear or to your auditory nerve.
  • Conductive hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss is caused by damage or blockage to your middle or outer ear. There are many possible causes of conductive hearing loss. It can be temporary or permanent, depending on the cause.
  • Mixed hearing loss. Mixed hearing loss is a combination of sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. It can include damage to any combination of your auditory nerve, inner ear, middle ear, or outer ear.
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Hearing loss is diagnosed by a specialist called an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor.

They’ll ask questions about your general health history and about your hearing loss. You’ll have tests to determine what type of hearing loss you have and what the cause might be.

A hearing test called an audiogram is one of the first steps in a hearing loss diagnosis. This test can determine if your hearing loss is conductive, sensorineural, or mixed. It can also determine how severe your hearing loss is.

Sometimes this test will be enough to confirm a diagnosis. When you need other tests done, they might include:

  • CT scans, MRI scans, or other imaging tests. These tests allow the ENT to see the structure of your ear.
  • Tympanometry. This test measures pressure in your middle ear and detects the movement of your eardrum.
  • Acoustic reflex. An acoustic reflex test measures the movement of your ear muscles in response to sounds.
  • Audiometric tests. You’ll listen to sounds and words through headphones and report what you heard for this test.
  • Static acoustic measures. This test can detect a hole in your eardrum.

Sometimes the doctor will request additional tests, though these are more commonly done in infants. They might include an otoacoustic emissions test to detect blockages and damages to the ear or an auditory brainstem response test to see electrical responses to sounds.

The results of your tests will confirm the type of hearing loss you have and its cause. Your ENT can discuss any treatment options and next steps with you.

The treatment for conductive hearing loss depends on its cause. Some causes will clear up on their own, others will need treatment, and others will be permanent.

When treatment is required, options include:

  • extraction of earwax or objects
  • antibiotics to clear up infections
  • surgery to help repair damage or remove growths

When conductive hearing loss is caused by permanent structural conditions, such as a narrowed ear canal, treatment generally takes the form of an assistive hearing device.

This might be a traditional hearing aid or a surgically implanted hearing device. Your ENT can help you decide which option is best for you.

Conductive hearing loss has many causes. Some of them cannot be prevented and don’t have known risk factors.

Other causes do have risk factors. They include:

  • having frequent ear infections
  • cleaning your ears with cotton swabs, pins, or other small objects that can damage the eardrum
  • swimming
  • having excess moisture in your ear for long periods of time
  • exposing your ears to water that is high in bacteria

Your outlook depends on the type of conductive hearing loss you have. When your hearing loss is caused by something minor, such as earwax buildup, it often can be resolved quickly.

Other causes of conductive hearing loss are chronic. However, devices such as hearing aids and implantable hearing devices are available and can correct your hearing loss.

Conductive hearing loss is the result of damage to your outer or middle ear. It can make it very difficult to hear soft sounds. Some causes of conductive hearing loss are temporary and might even resolve on their own.

Other causes are permanent and can be corrected with assistive hearing devices. An ENT can diagnose the cause of your conductive hearing loss and discuss your next steps.