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 with nearly 36 million Americans now reporting 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.
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 waxcan block ear canals and reduce hearing.
Symptoms of Hearing Loss
In many cases, hearing fades so slowly, its departure goes unnoticed. You may think that people are mumbling more, your spouse needs to speak up, and the telephone is an inferior communication device. As long as some sound still comes in, you may assume your hearing is fine.
At the early stage of hearing loss, high-pitched sounds, such as children's and female voices, and the sounds "S" and "F" become harder to decipher. Other symptoms of hearing loss include:
- Trouble understanding phone conversations
- Trouble hearing above background noise
- Trouble following a conversation when more than one person speaks at once
- Perception that people are not speaking clearly or mumbling
- Often misunderstanding what people say and responding inappropriately
- Often having to ask people to repeat themselves
- Frequent complaints by others that the TV is too loud
- Ringing, roaring, or hissing sounds in the ears, known as tinnitus
Levels of Hearing Loss
Doctors classify hearing loss by degrees: from mild, moderate, severe, or profound. As the stages progress, the person with hearing loss becomes increasingly cut off from the world of speech and sounds. The symptoms of these categories include:
Mild hearing loss. One-on-one conversations are fine but it becomes hard to catch every word in the presence of background noise.
Moderate hearing loss. You often need to ask people to repeat themselves during in-person and telephone conversations.
Severe hearing loss. Following a conversation is almost impossible without a hearing aid.
Profound hearing loss. You cannot hear other people speaking, unless they are extremely loud. Without a hearing aid or cochlear implant you cannot understand speech.
Treatment for Hearing Loss
Treatment depends on the type and source of hearing loss. Surgery may reverse hearing loss caused by otosclerosis, scar tissue, or infection while Ménière's disease is sometimes treatable with medication and diet modification.
Hearing loss caused by infection can often be treated with antibiotics.
If you think your hearing loss stems from medication use, talk with your doctor about alternative drug options. Prompt medical treatment for sudden hearing loss may increase the chance of recovery.
People with permanent hearing loss need to learn how to function with the hearing they still have. Most people with permanent hearing loss can benefit from using a hearing aid -- yet only one in five eligible people use them. Hearing aids are tiny instruments you typically wear in or behind your ear that make sounds louder. Things do sound different through a hearing aid, so it's important to talk with your doctor to set realistic goals.
Other sound-enhancing technologies include personal listening systems that allow you to tune in to what you want to hear and mute other sounds. TV-listening systems make it possible for you to hear the television or radio without turning the volume way up. Different kinds of phone-amplifying devices are available to make conversations possible on home and mobile phones. Finally cochlear implants are used mainly with young children but are becoming more popular among older adults with profound hearing loss.
Living With Hearing Loss
You can work with your family and friends to re-establish two-way communication. For starters, set up your home so your rooms are well lit and the chairs face each other. Seeing the faces of people when they talk allows you to see their mouths move as well as their facial expressions. Remove avoidable sources of background noise; for instance, turn off the TV when no one's watching it. Then let people know a few things they can do to help you understand them better:
- Make sure they have your attention before they start talking.
- Make sure you can see their lips moving when they talk.
- Speak clearly but don't shout.
Take Good Care of Your Ears
With so many untreatable cases of hearing loss, prevention is your best ticket to healthy long-term hearing. Wear earplugs when you're exposed to sounds as loud or louder than traffic. Lawn mowers, power sanders, vacuums, and most concerts are all loud enough to harm unprotected ears. When possible, move away from the source of the noise. For example, cross the street or cover your ears when you walk past a loud road construction site.
If you work in a noisy workplace, talk to your employer about ear safety. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that employers in noisy plants install barrier walls or mufflers to protect their workers' hearing. Hearing loss is often permanent, so do what you can to protect one of your most valuable natural assets.