Hearing loss is when you’re unable to partially or completely hear sound in one or both of your ears. Hearing loss typically occurs gradually over time. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) reports that about 25 percent of those between the ages of 65 and 74 experience hearing loss.
Other names for hearing loss are:
- decreased hearing
- loss of hearing
- conductive hearing loss
The three main parts of the ear are the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. Hearing begins when sound waves pass through the outer ear to the eardrum, which is the thin piece of skin between your outer and middle ear. When the sound waves reach the eardrum, the eardrum vibrates.
The three bones of the middle ear are called the ossicles. These include the hammer, anvil, and stirrup. The eardrum and the ossicles work together to increase the vibrations as the sound waves travel onward to the inner ear.
When the sound waves reach the inner ear, they travel through the fluids of the cochlea. The cochlea is a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. In the cochlea, there are nerve cells with thousands of miniature hairs attached to them. These hairs help convert the sound wave vibrations into electrical signals that then travel to your brain. Your brain interprets these electrical signals as sound. Different sound vibrations create different reactions in these tiny hairs, signaling different sounds to your brain.
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) reports that there are three basic types of hearing loss, each caused by different underlying factors. The three most common causes of decreased hearing are conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), and mixed hearing loss.
Conductive Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss occurs when sounds aren’t able to travel from the outer ear to the eardrum and the bones of the middle ear. When this type of hearing loss occurs, you may find it difficult to hear soft or muffled sounds. Conductive hearing loss isn’t always permanent. Medical interventions can treat it. Treatment may include antibiotics or surgical interventions, such as a cochlear implant. A cochlear implant is a small electrical machine placed under your skin behind the ear. It translates sound vibrations into electrical signals that your brain can then interpret as meaningful sound.
Conductive hearing loss can be the result of:
- ear infections
- swimmer’s ear
- a buildup of wax in the ear
A foreign object that has become stuck in the ear, benign tumors or scarring of the ear canal due to recurrent infections are all potential causes of hearing loss.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SNHL)
SNHL happens when there’s damage to inner ear structures or in the nerve pathways to the brain. This type of hearing loss is usually permanent. SNHL makes even distinct, normal, or loud sounds seem muffled or unclear.
SNHL can result from:
- birth defects that alter the structure of the ear
- working around loud noises
- trauma to the head or skull
- Meniere’s disease, which is a disorder of the inner ear that can affect hearing and balance.
- acoustic neuroma, which is a noncancerous tumor that grows on the nerve that connects the ear to the brain called the “vestibular cochlear nerve”
Infections such as the following can also damage the nerves of the ear and lead to SNHL:
- scarlet fever
Some medications, called ototoxic medications, may also cause SNHL. According to the ASHA, there are over 200 over-the-counter and prescription medications that may cause hearing loss. If you’re taking medications for cancer, heart disease, or a serious infection, talk to your doctor about the hearing risks involved with each.
Mixed Hearing Loss
Mixed hearing loss may also occur. This happens when both conductive hearing loss and SNHL occur at the same time.
Hearing loss typically occurs over time. At first, you may not notice any changes in your hearing. However, if you experience any of the following symptoms, you should contact your doctor:
- hearing loss that interferes with your daily activities
- hearing loss that becomes worse or that doesn’t go away
- hearing loss that’s worse in one ear
- sudden hearing loss
- ringing in the ear
- severe hearing loss
- having ear pain along with hearing problems
You should seek emergency medical treatment if you experience headaches, numbness, or weakness along with any of the following:
- quick breathing
- neck stiffness
- sensitivity to light
- mental agitation
These symptoms may occur with life-threatening conditions that warrant immediate medical attention, such as meningitis.
If you develop hearing loss due to a buildup of wax in the ear canal, you can remove the wax at home. Over-the-counter solutions, including wax softeners, can remove wax from the ear. Syringes can also push warm water through the ear canal to remove the wax. Consult your doctor before attempting to remove any object stuck in your ear to avoid unintentionally damaging your ear.
For other causes of hearing loss, you’ll need to see your doctor. If your hearing loss is the result of an infection, your doctor may need to prescribe antibiotics. If your hearing loss is due to other conductive hearing problems, your doctor may refer you to a specialist to receive a hearing aid or a cochlear implant.
Hearing loss has been shown to negatively impact people’s quality of life and their mental state. If you develop hearing loss, you may have difficulty understanding others. This can increase your anxiety level or cause depression. Treatment for hearing loss may improve your life significantly. It may restore self-confidence while also improving your ability to communicate with other people.
Not all cases of hearing loss are preventable. However, there are several steps that you can take to protect your hearing:
- Use safety equipment if you work in areas with loud noises, and wear earplugs when you swim and go to concerts. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports that 15 percent of people ages 20 to 69 experienced hearing loss due to loud noise.
- Have regular hearing tests if you work around loud noises, swim often, or go to concerts on a regular basis.
- Avoid prolonged exposure to loud noises and music.
- Seek help for ear infections. They may cause permanent damage to the ear if they’re left untreated.