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Hearing loss is when you are unable to partially or completely hear sound in one or both of your ears. In most people, hearing loss begins after age 20 (MedlinePlus). Hearing loss typically occurs gradually over time, but by the time a person reaches 65, hearing loss can be quite significant. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NICDC) reported that, in 2010, 30 percent of those between the ages of 65 and 74 said they had hearing loss (NICDC).
Hearing loss is also known as:
There are three main parts to the ear: the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. The hearing process includes these basic steps.
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 include conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), and mixed hearing loss (ASHA).
This type of hearing loss occurs when sounds are not 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 can be treated through medical interventions and is not always permanent. 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) that translates sound vibrations into electrical signals that your brain can then interpret as meaningful sound.
Conductive hearing loss can be caused by:
This type of hearing loss happens when there is 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-to-loud sounds seem muffled or unclear.
SNHL can result because of:
Some medications, called ototoxic medications, may also cause SNHL. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, there are over 200 medications (over-the-counter and prescription) that may cause hearing loss. If you are taking medications for cancer, heart disease, or a serious infection, talk with your doctor about the hearing risks involved with each (ASHA).
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:
If you experience headaches, numbness or weakness, coupled with chills, quick breathing, neck stiffness, vomiting, sensitivity to light, or mental agitation, you should seek emergency medical treatment. These symptoms may be associated with life-threatening conditions, such as meningitis, that warrant immediate medical attention.
If you develop hearing loss that is 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 be used to remove wax from the ear. Syringes can also be used to push warm water through the ear canal to remove the wax. If a foreign object is stuck in the ear canal, you may (depending on the object) be able to remove the object at home. However, in this case, it would be wise to consult your doctor before attempting to remove the object—you do not want to unintentionally damage your ear.
For other causes of hearing loss, you will need to see your doctor. If your hearing loss is caused by an infection, your doctor may need to prescribe antibiotics. If your hearing loss is caused by 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 a person’s quality of life and 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 friends and family members.
Not all cases of hearing loss can be prevented. However, there are several steps that you can take to protect your hearing:
Written by: Darla Burke
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD
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