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
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
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.
What Causes Hearing Loss?
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
SNHL can result from:
- birth defects that alter the structure of the
- 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
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
Mixed Hearing Loss
Mixed hearing loss may also occur. This happens when both
conductive hearing loss and SNHL occur at the same time.
What Are the Symptoms of Hearing Loss?
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
- hearing loss that becomes worse or that doesn’t
- 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.
What Are the Treatment Options for Hearing Loss?
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
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.
What Are the Complications Associated with Hearing Loss?
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.
How Can I Prevent Hearing Loss?
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
- Seek help for ear infections. They may cause permanent
damage to the ear if they’re left untreated.