Hearing lossDecreased hearing; Deafness; Loss of hearing; Conductive hearing loss; Sensorineural hearing loss; Presbycusis
Hearing loss is being partly or totally unable to hear sound in one or both ears.
Symptoms of hearing loss may include:
- Certain sounds seeming too loud
- Difficulty following conversations when two or more people are talking
- Difficulty hearing in noisy areas
- Trouble telling high-pitched sounds (such as "s" or "th") from one another
- Less trouble hearing men's voices than women's voices
- Hearing voices as mumbled or slurred
Other symptoms include:
- Feeling of being off-balance or dizzy (more common with Ménière disease and acoustic neuroma)
Ménière disease is an inner ear disorder that affects balance and hearing.
- Feeling of pressure in the ear (in the fluid behind the eardrum)
- Ringing or buzzing sound in the ears (tinnitus)
Conductive hearing loss (CHL) occurs because of a mechanical problem in the outer or middle ear. This may be because:
- The 3 tiny bones of the ear (ossicles) are not conducting sound properly.
- The eardrum is not vibrating in response to sound.
Causes of conductive hearing loss can often be treated. They include:
- Buildup of wax in the ear canal
- Damage to the very small bones (ossicles) that are right behind the eardrum
- Fluid remaining in the ear after an ear infection
Fluid remaining in the ear
Otitis media with effusion (OME) is thick or sticky fluid behind the eardrum in the middle ear. It occurs without an ear infection.
- Foreign object that is stuck in the ear canal
- Hole in the eardrum
- Scar on the eardrum from repeated infections
Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) occurs when the tiny hair cells (nerve endings) that detect sound in the ear are injured, diseased, do not work correctly, or have died. This type of hearing loss often cannot be reversed.
Sensorineural hearing loss is commonly caused by:
- Acoustic neuroma
- Age-related hearing loss
- Childhood infections, such as meningitis, mumps, scarlet fever, and measles
Meningitis is an infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. This covering is called the meninges.
Mumps is a contagious disease that leads to painful swelling of the salivary glands. The salivary glands produce saliva, a liquid that moistens food...
Scarlet fever is caused by an infection with bacteria called A streptococcus. This is the same bacteria that cause strep throat.
- Ménière' disease
- Regular exposure to loud noises (such as from work or recreation)
- Use of certain medicines
Hearing loss may be present at birth (congenital) and can be due to:
- Birth defects that cause changes in the ear structures
- Genetic conditions (more than 400 are known)
- Infections the mother passes to her baby in the womb (such as toxoplasmosis, rubella, or herpes
Congenital toxoplasmosis is a group of symptoms that occur when an unborn baby (fetus) is infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii.
Congenital rubella is a condition that occurs in an infant whose mother is infected with the virus that causes German measles. Congenital means the ...
The ear can also be injured by:
- Pressure differences between the inside and outside of the eardrum, often from scuba diving
- Skull fractures (can damage the structures or nerves of the ear)
- Trauma from explosions, fireworks, gunfire, rock concerts, and earphones
You can often flush wax buildup out of the ear (gently) with ear syringes (available in drug stores) and warm water. Wax softeners (like Cerumenex) may be needed if the wax is hard and stuck in the ear.
Take care when removing foreign objects from the ear. Unless it is easy to get to, have your health care provider remove the object. Don't use sharp instruments to remove foreign objects.
See your provider for any other hearing loss.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if:
- Hearing problems interfere with your lifestyle.
- Hearing problems do not go away or become worse.
- The hearing is worse in one ear than the other.
- You have sudden, severe hearing loss or ringing in the ears (tinnitus).
- You have other symptoms, such as ear pain, along with hearing problems.
- You have new headaches, weakness, or numbness anywhere on your body.
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
The provider will take your medical history and do a physical exam.
Tests that may be done include:
- Audiometry (a hearing test used to check the type and amount of hearing loss)
An audiometry exam tests your ability to hear sounds. Sounds vary, based on their loudness (intensity) and the speed of sound wave vibrations (tone)...
- CT or MRI scan of the head (if a tumor or fracture is suspected)
A head computed tomography (CT) scan uses many x-rays to create pictures of the head, including the skull, brain, eye sockets, and sinuses.
The following surgeries may help some types of hearing loss:
- Eardrum repair
- Placing tubes in the eardrums to remove fluid
- Repair of the small bones in the middle ear (ossiculoplasty)
The following may help with long-term hearing loss:
- Devices for hearing loss
- Hearing aids
- Learning techniques to help you communicate
- Sign language (for those with severe hearing loss)
Cochlear implants are only used in people who have lost too much hearing to benefit from a hearing aid.
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Baloh RW, Jen JC. Hearing and equilibrium. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 428.
Bauer CA, Jenkins HA. Otologic symptoms and syndromes. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund V, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 156.
El Dib RP, Matthew JL, Martins RHG. Interventions to promote the wearing of hearing protection. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;4:CD005234. PMID: 22513929. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22513929.
Lonsbury-Martin BL, Martin GK. Noise-induced hearing loss. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund V, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 152.
Shibata SB, Shearer AE, Smith RJH. Genetic sensorineural hearing loss. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund V, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 148.
Ear anatomy - illustration
The ear consists of external, middle, and inner structures. The eardrum and the 3 tiny bones conduct sound from the eardrum to the cochlea.
Review Date: 5/25/2016
Reviewed By: Sumana Jothi, MD, specialist in laryngology, Assistant Clinical Professor, UCSF Otolaryngology, NCHCS VA, SFVA, San Francisco, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.