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Hearing loss is a sudden or gradual decrease in how well you can hear. Depending on the cause, it can be mild or severe, temporary or permanent.
Congenital hearing loss means you are born without hearing. This topic focuses on gradual hearing loss, which happens over time and can affect people of all ages.
If you have hearing loss, you may not be aware of it, especially if it has happened over time. Your family members or friends may notice that you're having trouble understanding what others are saying.
There are ways you can deal with hearing loss. And hearing aids and other devices can help you hear.
In adults, the most common causes of hearing loss are:
Other causes of hearing loss include earwax buildup, an object in the ear, injury to the ear or head, an ear infection, a ruptured eardrum, and other conditions that affect the middle or inner ear.
Common symptoms of hearing loss include:
Other symptoms may include:
Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask about your symptoms and past health. He or she also may look in your ears with a lighted device called an otoscope.
If your doctor thinks that you have hearing loss, he or she will do hearing tests to check whether you have hearing loss and find out how severe it is. You may be referred to an audiologist to do the tests. These tests may include:
Your doctor can help you decide on the best treatment. Noise-induced or age-related hearing loss can be treated with hearing devices, such as hearing aids. Other devices can help alert you to sounds around the house like the phone or doorbell. If hearing aids don't work for you, cochlear implants may be an option.
You also can learn ways to live with reduced hearing, such as paying attention to people's gestures, facial expressions, posture, and tone of voice.
In other types of hearing loss, you can treat the problem that caused the hearing loss. For example, you may remove earwax or take medicine for an infection to help your hearing come back.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Learning about hearing loss:
Living with hearing loss:
In adults, the most common causes of hearing loss are:
Other causes of hearing loss include:
Other medical conditions that do not affect the ear directly may also cause hearing loss.
Symptoms of hearing loss include:
Other symptoms that may occur with hearing loss include:
People who have hearing loss are sometimes not aware of it. Family members or friends often are the first to notice the hearing loss. Many adults may be depressed because of how hearing loss is affecting their relationships and social life.
We hear sounds when sound energy goes through the ear's three main structures. In hearing loss, one or more of these structures is damaged. These structures are the:
Which part of the ear is affected determines the type of hearing loss.
A mixed hearing loss, in which both the conductive and sensorineural systems are affected, can also occur.
Another type of hearing loss is central hearing loss. In this type of hearing loss, the ear works, but the brain has trouble understanding sounds because the parts that control hearing are damaged. It may occur after a head injury or stroke. This type of hearing loss is rare.
Undiagnosed and untreated hearing loss can contribute to depression, social isolation, and loss of independence, especially in older adults.
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if:
Call a doctor immediately if you:
Call your doctor if you:
If you think you have a hearing problem, you might choose to see an audiologist.
Watchful waiting is when you and your doctor watch symptoms to see if the health problem improves on its own. Although hearing loss is not usually dangerous, it can affect your personal safety. It can also reduce how much you can do in the workplace and at home and limit you socially. It is important that you talk to your doctor about hearing loss.
Hearing loss can be diagnosed by:
If your doctor suspects or diagnoses hearing loss, he or she may have you see an ear, nose, and throat specialist (otolaryngologist) or an audiologist.
Your doctor will diagnose hearing loss by asking questions about your symptoms and past health and by doing a physical exam. He or she may find during a routine visit that you have some hearing loss.
You will also have a physical exam of the ears. Your doctor will use a lighted instrument (an otoscope) and may find problems in the ear canal, eardrum, and middle ear, including:
If your exam, history, or symptoms suggest a hearing problem, your doctor may refer you to an audiologist to do hearing tests.
Depending on the suspected cause of hearing loss, you may also have other tests:
Some hearing problems can delay your child's speech and language development. Early screening for hearing loss can help prevent many learning, social, and emotional problems that can be related to speech and language development.1 The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all newborns be screened for hearing loss.2 All 50 states require newborn hearing tests for all babies born in hospitals. Talk to your doctor about whether your child has been or should be tested.
Signs of noise-induced hearing loss are appearing at earlier ages and in children. Be sure your child has regular hearing exams.
Treatment for temporary or reversible hearing loss usually depends on the cause of the hearing loss. Treatment for permanent hearing loss includes using hearing devices or hearing implants. Your doctor can help you decide on the best treatment.
Although you and your family may view permanent hearing loss as part of aging, proper treatment is important. Hearing loss may contribute to loneliness, depression, and loss of independence. Treatment cannot bring back your hearing, but it can make communication, social interaction, and work and daily activities easier and more enjoyable.
Treatment for reversible hearing loss depends on its cause. It is often treated successfully. Hearing loss caused by:
In permanent hearing loss, such as age-related and noise-induced hearing loss, hearing devices can often improve how well you hear and communicate. These devices include:
You can prevent some types of hearing loss.
Being exposed to loud noise over and over is one of the most common causes of permanent hearing loss. It usually develops slowly and without pain or other symptoms. You may not notice that you have hearing loss until it is severe.
Be sure your child has regular hearing exams and follows the suggestions below to prevent hearing loss.
Steps you can take to lower your risk of noise-induced hearing loss include the following:
To lower your risk of other types of hearing loss:
If you have hearing loss, you may find that it takes extra effort and energy to talk with others. Hearing may be especially difficult in settings where there are many people talking or there is a lot of background noise. The increased effort it takes to be with other people may cause stress and fatigue. You may begin to avoid social activities, feel less independent, and worry about your safety.
Hearing devices you may want to use include:
Many other communication devices, such as pagers, fax machines, email, and custom calling features offered by phone companies, can be helpful. To get more information about selecting and using listening, alerting, and telecommunicating devices, talk to an audiologist.
A person with hearing loss may feel cut off from conversations and social interaction. The extra effort and stress needed to take part in conversations can be tiring for all people involved. If you live with someone who has hearing loss, you may improve your communication by:
The American Hearing Research Foundation helps pay for research into hearing and balance disorders and also helps to educate the public about these disorders. On their website you can find general information on many common ear disorders, including descriptions, causes, diagnoses, and treatments. References are also included as a source for further information. The American Hearing Research Foundation also publishes a newsletter, available by subscription, as well as a number of pamphlets on a variety of topics.
CitationsJoint Committee on Infant Hearing, American Academy of Pediatrics (2007). Year 2007 position statement: Principles and guidelines for early hearing detection and intervention programs. Pediatrics, 120(4): 898–921. Also available online: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/reprint/120/4/898.U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2008). Universal Screening for Hearing Loss in Newborns: Recommendation Statement. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf08/newbornhear/newbhearrs.htm.Other Works ConsultedAmerican Academy of Pediatrics (2008). Recommendations for preventive pediatric health care. In Bright Futures: Guidelines for Health Supervision of Infants, Children, and Adolescents, 3rd ed., p. 591. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics. Also available online: http://brightfutures.aap.org/pdfs/Guidelines_PDF/20-Appendices_PeriodicitySchedule.pdf.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Risk of bacterial meningitis in children with cochlear implants. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/hearingloss/meningitis.html.Gates GA, Clark WW (2012). Occupational hearing loss. In AK Lalwani, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery, 3rd ed., pp. 747–759. New York: McGraw-Hill.Gluth MB, et al. (2012). Cochlear implants. In AK Lalwani, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery, 3rd ed., pp. 850–860. New York: McGraw-Hill.Joint Committee on Infant Hearing, American Academy of Pediatrics (2007). Year 2007 position statement: Principles and guidelines for early hearing detection and intervention programs. Pediatrics, 120(4): 898–921. Also available online: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/reprint/120/4/898.National Institute on Deafness and Other Communicative Disorders (2011). Ten Ways to Recognize Hearing Loss. Available online: http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing/pages/10ways.aspx.Niparko JN, et al. (2010). Spoken language development in children following cochlear implantation. JAMA, 303(15): 1498–1506.Sweetow RW, Cascia T (2012). Aural rehabilitation and hearing aids. In AK Lalwani, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery, 3rd ed., pp. 721–728. New York: McGraw-Hill.Tsai BS, Cheung SW (2012). Implantable middle ear hearing devices. In AK Lalwani, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery, 3rd ed., pp. 845–849. New York: McGraw-Hill.U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2008). Universal Screening for Hearing Loss in Newborns: Recommendation Statement. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf08/newbornhear/newbhearrs.htm.
Current as of: January 14, 2014
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & Charles M. Myer, III, MD - Otolaryngology
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