Hearing loss is the single most common birth defect in America, and hearing loss among older adults is the third most common chronic ailment. The inability to hear speech and other sounds can occur in any individual, regardless of race, gender, or age. Today there are an estimated 31 million people with some form of hearing impairment.
Types of Hearing Loss
Conductive Hearing Loss
This occurs when sound is not conducted efficiently through the ear canal, eardrum, or tiny bones of the middle ear. This results in a reduction of loudness or the ability to hear faint sounds. Conductive loss may result from such things as earwax blocking the ear canal, fluid in the middle ear, middle ear infections, obstructions in the ear canal, perforations (holes) in the eardrum or problems with the three middle ear bones. A person with conductive hearing loss may notice their ears seem to feel full or plugged. This type of hearing loss can often be medically or surgically corrected.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
The most common type of hearing loss. It occurs when there has been damage to the tiny hairs which line the ear passage and which carry sound to the inner ear (cochlea) or to the nerve pathways retrocochlearly from the inner ear to the brain. Sensorineural hearing loss cannot be treated with medication or surgery. Sensorienural hearing loss is a permanent loss. It not only involves a reduction in sound level, or ability to hear faint sounds, but also affects speech understanding, or ability to hear clearly.
Sensorineural hearing loss can be caused by diseases, birth injury, drugs that are toxic to the auditory system, and genetic syndromes. Sensorineural hearing loss may also occur as a result of noise exposure, viruses, head trauma, aging, and tumors.
Mixed Hearing Loss
Sometimes a conductive hearing loss occurs in combination with a sensorineural hearing loss. In other words, there may be damage in the outer or middle ear and in the inner ear (cochlea) or auditory nerve. When this occurs, the hearing loss is referred to as a mixed hearing loss.
Symptoms of Hearing Loss
The first step in treating a hearing loss is to realize that one exists. If your friend or relative shows one or more of the following symptoms, encourage them gently to have their hearing tested:
- Trouble understanding speech that originates far away, such as in concert halls, theaters, or churches
- Difficulty hearing a phone or doorbell ring
- Difficulty hearing when in a group of people or in the presence of background noise, such as in a restaurant
- Avoiding social gatherings and other public occasions where they might feel embarrassed about misunderstanding others
- Asking you or others to repeat themselves because they have trouble understanding what is being said
- Turning your head or cupping their ear to focus on a certain sound or speaker
- Watching television or listening to the radio at a much louder volume than you or others normally do
- You hear people speaking but strain to understand their words
- You don’t laugh at jokes because you miss the punch line
- You frequently complain that people mumble
Hearing Loss PreventionNoise is one of the most common causes of hearing loss, and one of the most common occupational illnesses in the United States. Today, 10 million Americans have already suffered irreversible hearing damage from noise and 30 million are exposed to dangerous noise levels each day. A single shot from a shotgun, experienced at close range, may permanently damage your hearing in an instant. Repeated exposures to loud machinery may, over an extended period of time, present serious risks because the damage takes place so gradually. Excessive noise damages the delicate hair cells in the inner ear. This damage results in sensorineural hearing loss and often tinnitus (ringing of the ears). Dangerous levels of noise can come from working in noisy occupations or in engaging in dangerous recreational activities
Occupations particularly under risk for hearing loss due to exposure to noise are as follows: firefighters, police officers, factory workers, farmers, construction workers, military personnel, heavy industry workers, musicians, entertainment industry professionals.
Beware of dangerous recreational activities: video arcades, fire crackers, discos, music concerts, shooting a gun, movie theatres, sporting events, motor boards, motorcycles, snowmobiles, “boom cars.”
If you have to raise your voice to shout over the noise to be heard by someone within an arm’s length away, the noise is probably in the dangerous range. Some of the warning signs of the presence of or exposure to hazardous noise are as follows:
- You can’t hear someone three feet away
- You have pain in your ears after leaving a noisy area
- You hear ringing or buzzing (tinnitus) in your ears immediately after exposure to noise
- You suddenly have difficulty understanding speech after exposure to noise; you can hear people talking but you cannot understand them
What You Can Do to Protect Your HearingIf you work in an at-risk occupation, check with your employer to make sure you have adequately protected your hearing cording to OSHA regulations
- Limit exposure time to noisy activities
- Wear hearing protection, such as foam or silicone plugs or muffs. Foam plugs are available at your pharmacy while muffs and specialized ear protection can be purchased at sporting good stores or safety equipment stores
- At home, turn down the volume on the television, radio, stereos and music players (iPods, etc.)
- Wear ear plugs or muffs when using loud equipment (i.e. lawn mowers, power saw, leaf blower)
- Buy quieter products (compare dB ratings – the smaller the better)
- Reduce the number of noisy appliances running at the same time in your personal environment
- Avoid medications that can be dangerous to your hearing. Be sure to ask your physician about possible effects on your hearing