Hearing loss is usually caused by inner ear- or nerve damage. This could happen due to a congenital (birth) defect, a build-up of earwax, an injury, an underlying disease, certain medication, exposure to loud noises, or aging. Presbycusis is the most common type of hearing loss. This develops slowly as you age, affecting half the population over 75.
Hearing loss is normally permanent. There are, however, ways to improve what you hear. For some, surgery or a hearing device can help. You can improve communication through lip-reading, sign language, or writing messages.
It is important to see a doctor immediately if your hearing loss is sudden. If your hearing has deteriorated over a few days or a week, or if you have an earache or ear discharge, you should also seek medical attention.
What Causes Hearing Loss?
When you are hearing properly, your ear processes sound waves through your outer ear, causing vibrations in your eardrum. With three small bones in your middle ear, your eardrum amplifies these vibrations as they travel to the inner ear where they pass through fluid in your cochlea. There are thousands of hairs on your cochlea that convert these vibrations to electrical signals. These travel to the brain, which converts them to sound, allowing you to hear.
When your cochlea is not sending electrical signals to the brain, this causes hearing loss. This can occur as a result of damaged or missing hairs or nerve cells.
The following factors can all contribute towards hearing loss:
- Aging: Hearing loss associated with aging is very common. It involves gradual hearing loss in both ears from loud noise over many years.
- Certain medicines: These include the antibiotic gentamicin, sildenafil (Viagra) and certain medicines used to treat cancer.
- Congenital birth defects such as Microtia and Atresia
- Syndromes such as Down, Goldenhar, and Treacher Collins
- Labyrinthitis or Ménière’s disease: Characterised by sudden hearing loss together with dizziness, vertigo or ringing in your ears (tinnitus).
- Buildup of earwax: Earwax can block the ear canal and prevent you from hearing properly. It may be difficult to hear in one ear or your ears may feel itchy or blocked. Earwax removal can help restore hearing.
- Ruptured eardrum (tympanic membrane perforation): Sudden hearing loss after a very loud noise or a change in air pressure (for example, from flying), poking an eardrum with a foreign object, or an infection can all cause the eardrum to burst.
- Chronic ear infections
- Skin growths, cyst and unusual bone growths or tumours
- Previous ear surgeries
- Job-related noise: Jobs where you are constantly exposed to loud noise, such as construction or factory work, can lead to ear damage.
Symptoms Of Hearing Loss
Hearing loss can occur slowly over many years. Early signs of hearing loss may include:
- Muffled speech.
- Difficulty understanding words, especially when in a noisy or crowded place.
- Trouble hearing consonants (letters of the alphabet that are not vowels).
- Needing people to speak more slowly, clearly, and loudly.
- Turning up the volume on the TV or radio.
- Avoiding social settings because you struggle to understand what people are saying.
- Intolerance of background noise.
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
How Is Hearing Loss Treated?
GPs treat hearing loss according to its cause. Temporary hearing loss may be caused by an ear infection or a build-up of wax. These are treated with antibiotics or olive oil drops, respectively. For more complex cases your GP is likely to refer you to an audiologist (hearing specialist) for further tests. A hearing specialist may treat your hearing loss with one of the following:
- Hearing aids. These are the most used devices to improve hearing. Although they cannot make your hearing perfect, they can make sounds louder and clearer.
- Cochlear implant. These are devices that are attached to your skull or placed deep inside your ear.
To avoid further damage to your hearing, you should reduce exposure to loud noises or wear ear defenders. Power tools, guns, heavy machinery, and rock music can all impact your ability to hear.
It can be challenging to communicate if you have permanent hearing loss. This can lead to depression and cognitive impairment. Learning effective ways of communicating and joining a support group can help reduce the feeling of isolation.
Frequently Asked Questions
A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted device that allows a person with moderate-to-profound sensorineural hearing loss to have improved sound perception.
Hearing aids amplify sound. A microphone converts sound into a digital signal. The amplifier then increases the strength of the digital signal. Then, the speaker transmits the amplified sound into the ear.
Audiologists diagnose, manage, and treat hearing and related problems.