Affecting one in every three adults between the ages of 65 and 74, hearing loss is a common medical condition for Americans as they get older. Having difficulty hearing, whether talking to other people, having phone conversations, or hearing the doorbell or phone ring, can affect your overall quality of life.
Here's everything you need to know about hearing loss, including symptoms to watch out for, diagnosis by a board-certified ENT, and treatment options that are right for you.
What is Hearing Loss?
Being unable to hear sounds in either one or both of your ears is hearing loss. Hearing loss can be partial or complete, i.e., you cannot listen to sounds from the ear in question entirely.
Hearing loss can happen at any age, while it's most common for older adults, it can affect children, too. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incidence of hearing loss in children aged 6-19 is approximately 15%, with every 5 per 1000 children experiencing symptoms of hearing loss between the ages of 3 to 17.
How Does Hearing Work?
Sound waves begin by entering the ear. From there, they travel through the ear or auditory canal and vibrate the eardrum. The vibrations from the eardrum are transmitted to the ossicles—three bones that make up the middle ear. These ossicles intensify the vibrations, which are subsequently detected by hair-like cells in the cochlea.
The hair-like cells vibrate in response to the vibrations, resulting in the auditory nerve transmitting movement information to the brain. The brain, in response, analyzes the data, which you interpret as sound.
What are the Different Types of Hearing Loss?
Hearing loss can be categorized in three ways:
- Conductive Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss or CHL, is characterized by the inability of sound to enter your inner ear. It's often a result of a blockage or obstruction and trauma to your ear. Less frequently occurring, this hearing loss prevents sound from being carried to the inner ear and can be transient or permanent.
- Sensorineural Hearing Loss
This hearing loss happens due to a malfunctioning of the inner ear or auditory nerve, which is responsible for transmitting sound to your brain. This is the most commonly occurring hearing loss.
- Mixed Hearing Loss
This type of hearing loss indicates that both conductive and sensorineural hearing loss cause your symptoms. Trauma to the ear often results in the development of mixed hearing loss.
Mixed hearing loss may also occur gradually if another exacerbates one type of hearing loss. For instance, a person with chronic conductive hearing loss might develop age-related hearing loss as they age. A person with age-related hearing loss may also have a brief mixed hearing loss owing to wax impaction. Both sensorineural and conductive hearing loss may result from blast injuries or other forms of trauma.
What are the Causes of Hearing Loss?
Hearing loss can occur for a variety of reasons, including:
- Infections during pregnancy
- Congenital conditions, including mechanical problems of the outer or middle ear—this condition is known as conductive hearing loss (CHL)
- Lifestyle, including repeated sources of loud, ongoing noise
- Certain medications
While some risk factors make you more predisposed to developing hearing loss, other causes of hearing loss are treatable. This can include:
- Buildup of earwax
- Trauma to the ossicles (small bones) behind the eardrum
- Obstruction by a foreign object
- Hole in your eardrum
- Repeated infections and scar tissue
What are the Symptoms of Hearing Loss?
Symptoms of hearing loss might range from mild to moderate or severe to profound. A patient with a modest hearing impairment may have trouble comprehending speech, particularly in noisy environments, but those with significant deafness may need a hearing aid.
Some individuals are profoundly deaf and depend on lip-reading to communicate. People who are deaf cannot hear at all and may rely only on lip-reading or sign language.
However, hearing loss happens over time for most people, so you may not notice it. Symptoms of hearing loss can be categorized in the following way:
- Mild hearing loss
One-on-one conversations are audible, but you may notice yourself unable to catch words when background noise or music is playing.
- Moderate hearing loss
You ask people to repeat themselves in person and on the phone.
- Severe hearing loss
Having or following a conversation is impossible unless you have a hearing aid.
- Profound hearing loss
You cannot understand people without a hearing aid or cochlear implant.
Tinnitus, or ringing in your ears, may also be a common symptom for people with hearing loss.
How is Hearing Loss Diagnosed?
A board-certified ENT can help accurately diagnose the degree of your hearing loss. It's common for the following tests to be conducted during your appointment:
- Physical exam to see if there's earwax building, infection, or obstructions
- Ear screening tests to determine your level of hearing at different volumes
- Tuning fork test
- Audiometer test
Hearing Loss Treatments are Safe When Performed by a Board-Certified ENT Physician
There is assistance available for all forms of hearing loss. The treatment of deafness relies on both its etiology and severity. Sensorineural hearing loss cannot be cured. When cochlear hair cells are compromised, they cannot be repaired.
Nonetheless, several therapies may enhance the quality of life:
- Removal of ear wax
- Antibiotics (if your hearing loss is as a result of infection)
- Hearing Aids
Hearing aids do not cure deafness; instead, they amplify the sound entering the ear canal so that the user may hear more clearly.
- Cochlear Implants
The implantation of a cochlear implant helps individuals whose hearing loss is caused by damaged hair cells in the cochlea. Typically, the implants increase speech comprehension. The most recent cochlear implants have innovative technology that allows patients to enjoy music, better comprehend speech even in noisy environments, and utilize their processors while swimming.
It may be an ideal option for patients with scar tissue from past infections and those with otosclerosis.