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The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than five percent of the world’s population has some form of disabling hearing loss.

Doctors will describe someone as having hearing loss when they cannot hear well or at all.

You may have heard the terms “hard of hearing” and “deaf” to describe hearing loss. But what do these terms actually mean? Is there a difference between them? In this article, we answer these questions and more.

The difference between being hard of hearing and being deaf lies in the degree of hearing loss that’s occurred.

There are several different degrees of hearing loss, including:

  • Mild: Softer or subtler sounds are hard to hear.
  • Moderate: It’s hard to hear speech or sounds that are at a normal volume level.
  • Severe: It may be possible to hear loud sounds or speech, but it’s very difficult to hear anything at a normal volume level.
  • Profound: Only very loud sounds may be audible, or possibly no sounds at all.

Hard of hearing is a term that refers to someone with mild-to-severe hearing loss. In these individuals, some hearing capability is still present.

Deafness, on the other hand, refers to profound hearing loss. Deaf people have very little hearing or none at all.

Deaf people and those who are hard of hearing can nonverbally communicate with others in several different ways. Some examples include American Sign Language (ASL) and lip-reading.

Some of the symptoms of being hard of hearing can include:

  • feeling like speech and other sounds are quiet or muffled
  • having trouble hearing other people, particularly in noisy surroundings or when more than one person is speaking
  • frequently needing to ask others to repeat themselves or to speak more loudly or slowly
  • having to turn the volume up on your TV or headphones

In children and babies

Children and babies with hearing loss may show different symptoms than adults. Symptoms in children can include:

  • having unclear speech or talking very loudly
  • often replying with “huh?” or “what?”
  • not responding to or following directions
  • a delay in speech development
  • turning up the volume too high on the TV or headphones

Some symptoms in babies include:

  • not being startled by a loud noise
  • only noticing you when they see you and not when you say their name
  • appearing to hear some sounds but not others
  • not responding to or turning toward a sound source after they’ve reached 6 months of age
  • not saying simple single words by 1 year of age

A variety of factors can lead to being hard of hearing. They can include:

  • Aging: Our ability to hear decreases as we age due to the degeneration of the structures in the ear.
  • Loud noises: Exposure to loud noises during leisure activities or at your workplace can damage your hearing.
  • Infections: Some infections can lead to hearing loss. These can include things like chronic middle ear infections (otitis media), meningitis, and measles.
  • Infections during pregnancy: Certain maternal infections can lead to hearing loss in babies. These can include rubella, cytomegalovirus (CMV), and syphilis.
  • Injury: An injury to the head or ear, such as a blow or fall, can potentially lead to hearing loss.
  • Medications: Some medications can cause hearing loss. Examples include some types of antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs, and diuretics.
  • Congenital abnormalities: Some people are born with ears that haven’t formed properly.
  • Genetics: Genetic factors can predispose someone to develop hearing loss.
  • Physical factors: Having a perforated eardrum or a buildup of earwax can make hearing difficult.

It’s important to see your doctor if you have hearing issues that interfere with your day-to-day activities. Your doctor can do simple tests to check your ears and your hearing. If they suspect hearing loss, they may refer you to a specialist for further testing.

People who are hard of hearing can choose from among several different treatment options. Some options include:

  • Hearing aids: Hearing aids are small devices that sit in the ear and come in a variety of types and fits. They help amplify sounds in your environment so that you can more easily hear what’s going on around you.
  • Other assistive devices: Examples of assistive devices include captioning on videos and FM systems, which use a microphone for the speaker and a receiver for the listener.
  • Cochlear implants: A cochlear implant may help if you have more severe hearing loss. It converts sounds into electrical signals. These signals travel to your acoustic nerve, and the brain interprets them as sounds.
  • Surgery: Conditions affecting the structures of your ear, such as the eardrum and bones of the middle ear, can cause hearing loss. In these types of cases, doctors may recommend surgery.
  • Earwax removal: A buildup of earwax can cause temporary hearing loss. Your doctor may use a small tool or suction device to remove earwax that’s accumulated in your ear.

There are several steps that you can take to protect your hearing. For instance, you can:

  • Turn the volume down: Avoid listening to your TV or headphones at a loud volume setting.
  • Take breaks: If you’re being exposed to loud noises, taking regular quiet breaks can help protect your hearing.
  • Use sound protection: If you’re going to be in a noisy environment, protect your hearing by using earplugs or noise-canceling earphones.
  • Clean carefully: Avoid using cotton swabs to clean your ears, as they can push earwax deeper into your ear and also increase the risk of a perforated eardrum.
  • Vaccinate: Vaccination can protect against infections that can cause hearing loss.
  • Get tested: If you feel like you’re at risk for hearing loss, get regular hearing tests. That way, you’ll be able to detect any changes early.

If you have hearing loss, there are a variety of resources that you may find useful. These include the following:

  • Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA): This organization provides information and support for people with hearing loss and also offers resources for their loved ones.
  • National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD): Here, you can find information on various hearing and communication disorders and the ongoing research.
  • Ava — 24/7 Accessible Life: This app enables deaf people and those who are hard of hearing to follow conversations in real time. The app transcribes what people say and presents it as text on your screen.
  • Sound Alert: This app allows you to record important sounds in your home, such as the smoke detector alarm, doorbell, and phone ringtone. You can then receive a notification on your smartphone when these noises occur.
  • Subtitles Viewer: This app allows you to download subtitles onto your mobile device, which you can sync with the corresponding movie or TV program.

If you have a loved one who’s hard of hearing, you can communicate in ways that make it easier for them to understand you. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Try to talk in an area without a lot of background noise. If you’re in a group, make sure that only one person is speaking at once.
  • Speak at a natural, steady pace and just a little bit louder than you usually would. Avoid shouting.
  • Use hand gestures and facial expressions to provide clues as to what you’re saying.
  • Avoid activities that can make lip-reading difficult. These include eating while talking and covering your mouth with your hand.
  • Remain patient and positive. Don’t be afraid to repeat something or to try different words if they don’t understand what you’ve said.

The difference between being hard of hearing and being deaf lies in the degree of hearing loss.

People typically use being hard of hearing to describe mild-to-severe hearing loss. Meanwhile, deafness refers to profound hearing loss. Deaf people have very little, if any, hearing.

There are many different causes of hearing loss, including aging, exposure to loud noises, and infections. Some types of hearing loss are preventable, while others can be present at birth or develop naturally with age.

If you have hearing loss that interferes with your daily life, see your doctor. They can evaluate your condition and may refer you to a specialist for further testing and treatment.