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Hearing Loss

If you take your ears for granted, listen up: hearing loss is the third most common health problem in the U.S. It's also on the rise. Compared to a 1971 federal survey that estimated 13.2 million Americans had hearing loss, up to 36 million Americans now report lost hearing. When hearing goes, it may affect quality of life and relationships.

In this article, WebMD looks at the causes, symptoms, and treatment of hearing loss. If you have lost some of your hearing, you'll find strategies to keep lines of communication open with friends and family. If your hearing is still intact, this article could help you keep it that way for years to come.

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Causes of Hearing Loss

Certain conditions, including age, illness, and genetics, may contribute to hearing loss. Over several generations, modern life has added a host of ear-damaging elements to the list, including some medications and plenty of sources of loud, continuous noise.

Advanced age is the most common cause of hearing loss. One out of three people aged 65-74 has some level of hearing loss. After age 75, that ratio goes up to one out of every two people.

Researchers don't fully understand why hearing decreases with age. It could be that lifetime exposure to noise and other damaging factors slowly wear down the ears' delicate mechanics. Genes also play a role.

Noise wears down hearing if it's loud or continuous. In some workplaces, ears are exposed to dangerous noise levels every day. To understand the impact of noise, consider this: 44% of carpenters and 48% of plumbers report some hearing loss. Other noisy lines of work include the military, mining, manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation.

Even musicians, who literally create music for our ears, are at risk for noise-induced hearing loss. Some now wear special earplugs to protect their ears when they perform. The earplugs allow them to hear music without harming their ears' inner workings.

Certain medications can impair hearing and/or balance. More than 200 medications and chemicals have a track record of triggering hearing and/or balance side effects in addition to their disease-fighting capabilities. These include some antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs, aspirin, loop diuretics, a drug used to treat malaria, and several drugs for erectile dysfunction.

Sudden hearing loss, the rapid loss of 30 decibels or more of hearing ability, can happen over several hours or days. (A normal conversation is 60 decibels.) In nine out of 10 cases, sudden hearing loss affects only one ear. Though there are about 4,000 new cases of sudden hearing loss a year, the cause can only be found in 10% to 15% of cases.

Certain illnesses, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, put ears at risk by interfering with the ears' blood supply. Otosclerosis is a bone disease of the middle ear and Ménière's disease affects the inner ear. Both can cause hearing loss.

Trauma, especially that which involves a skull fracture or punctured eardrum, puts ears at serious risk for hearing loss.

Infection or ear wax can block ear canals and reduce hearing.

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