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Hard of Hearing vs. Deaf: What's the Difference?

By Kyle Kirkland, Sophie Dunne
Hearing loss and deafness have different symptoms and treatment, so it’s important to know the difference. Here’s what you need to know about being deaf vs. hard of hearing.

Hearing loss, or being “hard of hearing”, is the third most common chronic health condition in older adults, according to the Hearing Health Foundation. Hearing loss can appear in different ways and is not the same as deafness. Here is what you need to know about being hard of hearing vs. deaf.

Hard of Hearing Definition

“Hard of hearing suggests an individual has some hearing loss but not complete hearing loss,” Nicole Aaronson, MD, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“Hearing loss (i.e., being hard of hearing) can be mild, moderate, or severe," Aaronson says. Aaronson adds that there are different forms of hearing loss, including:

  • Conductive hearing loss, which involves problems in the middle ear system. It can develop due to problems with the ossicles (i.e., hearing bones), the fluid of the middle ear, or the tympanic membrane (i.e., eardrum). 
  • Sensorineural hearing loss, which involves problems in the middle ear's structures, such as the cochlear nerve. 

Symptoms of hearing loss include:

  • Trouble understanding conversation if there is any background noise
  • Hearing a ringing or hissing sound in your ears
  • Having to ask someone to repeat themselves during a conversation

Treatment for hearing loss includes hearing aids, medications, or surgery—depending on the severity of the hearing loss. 

Deafness Definition

“People who are hard of hearing vary in the magnitude of their hearing loss from very mild to very severe, but they are distinguished from people who are deaf by the fact that spoken language is still their primary form of communication,” Tim Trine, PhD, audiologist and Chief Executive Officer at Noopl, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

While those who are hard of hearing may be able to hear some sounds and get treatment to amplify those sounds, people who are deaf have “very little to no functional hearing,” according to the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center at the University of Washington.

“People who are deaf have so much hearing loss that understanding spoken language is not possible,” Trine says.

Deafness, also known as profound hearing loss, typically makes it difficult to hear sounds and understand speech. Those with profound hearing loss are also unable to hear loud noises like fire alarms or traffic.

“Profound hearing loss might be treated with something like a cochlear implant or, if the loss is unilateral (only in one ear), a CROS (contralateral routing of sound) device may be recommended, which routes the sound to the good ear,” Aaronson says.  

Regardless of which type of hearing loss you may have, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible.

“A sudden change in hearing should always result in a visit to the doctor as soon as possible because sudden hearing loss is both rare and, in many instances, treatable. Most forms of acquired hearing loss, however, are gradual in their onset—typically the result of prolonged noise exposure or the aging process. Acquired deafness is a very rare event and is often the result of a severe illness or the consequence of the treatment for a severe illness,” Trine says.

Early medical treatment for hearing loss can allow doctors the chance to tailor the best treatment to you. 

“In both cases—hearing loss or deafness—ongoing monitoring of hearing sensitivity is typical so that modifications of the treatment intervention or rehabilitation can begin as early as possible,” Trine says. 

Hearing Loss Can Be Managed and Treated.

The earlier you address the symptoms of hearing loss, the more likely you are to avoid irreversible damage. Get the answers you need to start treatment today.