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When I was a kid, phone conversations with my grandmother went something like this:

"Hello?"

"Hi, Grandma. It's me, Stephanie!"

(Pause) "Hello?"

(Louder) "Hi, Grandma!"

"Hello?"

(Shouting) "HI, GRANDMA!!!"

Click.

At family gatherings, my relatives got so tired of repeating themselves that they left Grandma out of conversations. Even as a kid, I realized how isolated she must have felt due to her severe hearing loss.

My grandmother never got a hearing aid because she worried that wearing a huge piece of equipment behind her ear would alert the whole world to her hearing loss. Anyone who shares the same fear today should know this:

Times have changed. These aren't your grandma's hearing aids.

"I like to say that the hearing loss is more visible to others than the hearing aid," says Pam Mason, director of audiology professional practices at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). "Hearing aids today are behind the ear, very small, with a tiny wire that goes down into your ear canal. They truly are invisible."

Hearing aids are not the only hearing loss treatments available. There are other options, including middle ear implants and cochlear implants. But before you can get a hearing aid or any other hearing device, you need to first find out what's causing your hearing loss.

Step 1: Get Your Hearing Evaluated

The time to see a specialist is as soon as you start experiencing signs of hearing loss:

  • You're turning up the TV or radio volume louder than usual
  • You have ringing in your ears
  • You have trouble distinguishing conversations from background noise
  • Your family and friends have to repeat themselves
  • You have difficulty hearing on the telephone
  • You notice a difference between the right and left ear

The hearing evaluation and treatment typically involve a team of specialists that includes an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor, also called an otolaryngologist, and an audiologist.

"The first thing is to do a complete evaluation of the patient from a head and neck standpoint and understand the nature of the hearing loss," explains Anand K. Devaiah, MD, FACS, associate professor in the department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Boston University School of Medicine.

Many of the medical conditions that can contribute to severe hearing loss, from infections to tumors, are treatable.

"We might be able to intervene from a medical or surgical standpoint first," Devaiah says. Treatments may include:

  • Using antibiotics to treat ear infections
  • Surgically correcting anatomical problems with the eardrums or bones of the middle ear
  • Removing ear wax that blocks the ear canal by washing it out or dissolving it with ear drops

Once any medical cause of hearing loss has been ruled out, you'll undergo a series of hearing tests to evaluate:

  • Your ability to hear at different pitches and volumes
  • Your ability to understand speech and tell the difference between similar-sounding words
  • How well sound passes through your eardrum and middle ear
  • How well signals are passing from your ears to your brain