Learn more about hearing loss and how you can spot it early.
Broadly defined, hearing loss is any gradual or sudden loss of normal hearing. It can affect anyone at any age. Hearing loss may be present at birth (congenital hearing loss) or it could develop later in life from an injury, disease, or an underlying health issue. Some people experience temporary hearing loss while other individuals lose their hearing permanently.
- The experience with hearing loss will be different for each person
- Whether or not hearing can be full restored, or restored at all, will also depend on individual circumstances
The Impact of Hearing Loss
Difficulty hearing can have a major impact on all aspects of a person’s life. Children having trouble hearing may have issues with comprehension and the ability to learn to speak. Adults with hearing issues may have trouble completing certain work-related tasks, especially anything that involves communicating with others in a noisy environment. Other individuals sometimes miss bits and pieces of conversions, which can also affect comprehension of what’s being said. In some instances, certain pitches or tones may be difficult to interpret or hear. Symptoms commonly associated with hearing loss include:
- Hearing sounds as muffled or distorted
- A feeling of ears being plugged
- Difficulty hearing conversations when other people are talking at the same time or when there is background noise
- Having to turn up the volume on the radio or TV to fully hear all sounds
- A “spinning” feeling (vertigo)
- Persistent ear ringing or other internal sounds (tinnitus)
- Some degree of ear pain
- Itching sensations or irritation
- Fluid leaking from one or both ears
Possible Causes of Hearing Loss
The process of “hearing” starts when sound travels through different parts of the ear via the auditory nerve to the part of the brain responsible for interpreting sounds. If this process is interrupted, hearing loss occurs. Hearing can be affected be age-related changes within the ear. This type of impairment is often gradual and can range from mild to severe. It’s usually permanent. Some people slowly lose their hearing from regular exposure to loud noises from sources such as music, guns, and machines operated for work-related purposes.
In some instances, loud noises damage the inner ear and contribute to a progressive and steady loss of hearing. Hearing may also be damaged from exposure to loud, sound noises (e.g., fireworks, explosions). Hearing loss may also result from an infection, excessive wax accumulation, a foreign object in the ear, an injury, or an ear infection.
Hearing loss is diagnosed with a comprehensive assessment of an individual’s ability to hear and interpret various sounds and pitches. Diagnosis typically involves a physical examination, a review of medical and family history, and various tests performed by a hearing specialist. Results from a thorough patient evaluation will be used to determine the extent and type of hearing impairment being experienced and what can be done about it.
Different Types of Hearing Loss
There are three main types of hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss affects functions of the outer or middle ear. Patients with this type of hearing loss may have an issue with middle ear bones, ear drum, or the ear canal. Hearing loss that’s sensorineural involves structures in the inner ear, cochlea, or nerve. If someone has “mixed” hearing loss, their hearing impairment is due to issues with different parts of ear, or a combination of factors associated with conductive and sensorineural hearing loss.
Hearing aids and cochlear implants are commonly used to treat a loss of hearing, although treatment will depend on specific needs. In some cases, treatment of an underlying or related medical issue will improve hearing. Able to be worn fully in the ear or externally, hearing aids are designed to treat varying degrees of impairment, usually when it’s neutral or conductive hearing loss.
Some types of sensorineural impairment may be successfully corrected with a cochlear implant. Surgically inserted into the inner ear, this device helps transit sound to improve hearing capabilities. Ideal candidates are those who with extensive difficulties with comprehensive of speech and sound who have not noticed improvements with hearing aids. If patients understand less than 50% of speech with their hearing aids, they may be candidates for cochlear implantation. The UC Irvine cochlear implant team is led by Dr. Djalilian and performs approximately 100 implants per year.
It’s possible for someone to have hearing impairment and not be aware of it until others notice signs that words or sounds aren’t being understood or heard. Hearing loss can sometimes be avoided by minimizing exposure to loud noises, keeping ears clean, maintaining a healthy diet, being mindful of overall health, and paying attention to possible signs of hearing loss. Anything that affects hearing, whether it happens suddenly or gradually, should be evaluated as soon as possible so an appropriate solution can be recommended.