Hearing loss is one of the biggest health concerns in the U.S. It is the third most commonly reported physical condition, following arthritis and heart disease. It affects roughly 20 percent of the American population and can strike people of all ages.
The most common causes of hearing loss are noise exposure and aging.
What Are the Symptoms of Hearing Loss?
Hearing loss is a progressive condition that worsens over time. Symptoms appear so gradually, you may be completely unaware of your affliction for some time. Even when hearing loss is suspected, it takes an average of seven years for a person to seek medical treatment.
Knowing the signs is helpful in spurring you to take action sooner. Any of the following might indicate hearing loss:
- Frequently asking people to repeat what they have said.
- Feeling like others mumble when they speak.
- Having difficulty following conversations in which background noise is present.
- Turning up the volume on the television or radio.
- Avoiding social gatherings in noisy places.
Often, a family member or friend will be the first to notice a hearing problem. Since treatment is most effective when begun early, if you think you might be suffering from diminished hearing, do not hesitate to schedule an appointment with a hearing specialist. The sooner, the better!
How Is Hearing Loss Diagnosed?
In order to diagnose hearing loss, your doctor will review your medical history, discuss your symptoms, and give you a physical examination followed by a hearing evaluation consisting of a series of audiological tests.
What Are the Types of Hearing Loss?
Treatment will depend on your type and degree of hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss occurs when there are problems in the outer ear, ear canal, eardrum or middle ear. It can be caused by any of the following:
- Ear infection.
- Fluid in the ears.
- Malformation or abnormalities of the outer or middle ear.
- Impacted earwax.
- Foreign object in the ear.
- Perforated eardrum.
- Benign tumors.
Conductive hearing loss is often correctable with surgery or medications (typically antibiotics). Alternatively, it may be treated with hearing aids.
Sensorineural hearing loss involves a problem with the inner ear, and is frequently referred to as “nerve deafness.” It may be caused by any of these:
- Noise exposure.
- Head trauma.
- Aging (presbycusis).
- Viral disease.
- Autoimmune ear disease.
- Meniere’s disease.
- Malformation or abnormality of the inner ear.
Sensorineural hearing loss can sometimes be treated with medications (corticosteroids) or surgery. More likely, hearing aids will be required.
Mixed hearing loss is a combination of both types. Treatment might involve a combination of medication, surgery and/or hearing aids.
In addition to the different types of hearing loss, it is important to consider the extent to which a patient is experiencing symptoms. Hearing loss is further categorized as being either monaural or binaural.
Unilateral hearing loss (sometimes referred to as single-sided deafness) affects one ear only, while bilateral hearing loss affects both ears.
Patients with unilateral hearing loss have normal hearing in one ear and impaired hearing in the other; they have difficulty hearing on one side and localizing sound. This type of hearing loss is usually associated with conductive causes. Individuals with bilateral hearing loss have impaired hearing in both ears. The condition is most often treated with hearing aids (two are more effective than one) or cochlear implants.
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
Noise-induced hearing loss is the most common type experienced by younger individuals. It can be caused by exposure to a single loud sound, such as a gunshot or explosion, or by continuous exposure to loud noise over a period of time.
When sounds exceed 85 decibels (dB) they are considered hazardous to your hearing health. Continuous exposure to volume levels that high causes permanent damage to the hair cells in your ears.
Activities that put people at risk for noise-induced hearing loss include hunting, riding a motorcycle, listening to music at high volumes, playing in a band and attending rock concerts. An estimated 15 percent of Americans aged 20 to 69 have hearing loss that may have been caused by noise exposure. This type of hearing loss can be prevented by wearing earplugs and protective devices.
Hearing Loss Prevention
Protecting your ears is the key to hearing loss prevention. If your job exposes you to hazardous noises, make sure proper safety equipment is provided, and that it meets state and federal regulations. Hearing protection – earplugs and earmuffs – is essential when working around loud equipment. It’s always a good idea to bring along earplugs if you’re participating in a noisy recreational activity (e.g., a football game or rock concert), as well.
At home, limit your exposure to noisy activities, and keep the volume down – on the television, stereo and especially when it comes to personal listening devices like MP3 players. Prevent other types of hearing loss by refraining from inserting cotton swabs or other objects into your ears, blowing your nose gently through both nostrils and quitting smoking. Studies show those who use tobacco are more likely to suffer from hearing loss.
Regardless of your age, have your hearing tested regularly. Early detection is key. While noise-related hearing loss can’t be reversed, you can still take steps to avoid further damage to your hearing.