Warning! Sudden hearing loss is a medical emergency. Seek medical treatment immediately (call 999). This blog discusses the common causes of hearing loss and available treatments.
Causes of hearing loss range from the common (noise exposure) to the rare (Ménière’s disease). Below, we’ve listed some possible causes of hearing loss:
Loud noises and other forms of noise exposure can cause hearing loss. This includes loud music played through headphones. To mitigate the risk of hearing loss by loud sounds, wear earplugs when in a noisy environment. Noise levels above 85 decibels are potentially damaging. For reference, a concert can be 110 decibels and a police siren can be 120 decibels. Earmuffs or noise-cancellation earphones can protect the wearer from hearing damage.
Age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) refers to the loss of hearing that most of us experience as we age. As age-related hearing loss is gradual, it can be difficult to distinguish between hearing loss that’s a result of long-term exposure to noise and hearing loss from other factors.
During an ear infection, fluid can accumulate in the middle ear. This fluid blocks sound waves as they travel to the auditory nerve, causing hearing loss. This is usually only temporary, as once the fluid drains away, hearing will return to normal.
Otosclerosis is the scientific name for a type of bony growth that can develop inside the ear. The middle ear contains three tiny bones, known as the ossicular chain or ossicles. Osteosclerosis prevents vibrations from travelling along the ossicular chain, which means that the brain does not receive sounds. Otosclerosis is a relatively common cause of hearing loss in young adults. However, surgery or hearing aids can usually restore hearing.
Some medications affect hearing. These medications are called ototoxic drugs. These are usually only used to treat life-threatening conditions, such as rare forms of cancer.
An acoustic neuroma is a benign tumour that presses on the balance and hearing nerves, causing hearing loss. This type of tumours usually affects people aged between 30 and 60. Acoustic neuroma can be treated with surgery, but as this type of surgery involves some risk, some doctors choose instead to monitor the tumour with regular MRI scans.
Ménière’s disease can cause sudden hearing loss. It also affects balance — people who suffer from Ménière’s disease feel as though the room is spinning during an attack. There’s no cure for Ménière’s disease, but the symptoms can be treated.
Viral infections, such as mumps and measles, can cause permanent hearing loss. It’s not clear how viral infections cause hearing loss, but it’s thought that viruses might damage parts of the inner ear, such as the cochlea. The MMR vaccine protects against mumps, measles and rubella.
Head trauma, commonly caused by a fall or sports injury, can cause hearing loss. Damage to the ear or the brain can both cause hearing loss. Hearing loss from a head injury can range from mild to severe depending on the severity of the injury.
A perforated eardrum (a hole in the eardrum) can cause temporary hearing loss. It’s important to keep water and other liquids out of the ear when the eardrum is perforated. Water inside the middle ear can also cause an ear infection.
There are different types of hearing loss, as we’ll see below:
Sensorineural hearing loss refers to types of hearing loss that affect the inner ear or the cochlea. Common causes of sensorineural hearing loss include genetic or congenital problems as well as noise and age. Sensorineural hearing loss is often permanent.
The other common type of hearing loss is conductive hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss is when a problem, usually a blockage, prevents soundwaves from travelling through the outer ear or middle ear. Earwax, fluid from an ear infection and foreign objects stuck inside the ear are common examples of conductive hearing loss. As babies have a narrow ear canal, they can be more susceptible to conductive hearing loss. Hearing usually returns to normal when the blockage is treated.
The final type of hearing loss is mixed hearing loss, which includes a combination of sensorineural hearing loss and conductive hearing loss. Mixed hearing loss most commonly happens as a result of a head injury or when someone with sensorineural hearing loss accumulates too much earwax.
Hearing loss is often treatable. For conductive hearing loss, treatment is usually accomplished by removing the blockage. Do not try to remove a blockage by yourself and do not put anything into the ear to remove a blockage unless directed to do so by a trained audiologist.
Two treatments for sensorineural hearing loss are cochlear implants and hearing aids. Cochlear implants, for people with profound hearing loss, bypass the hair cells and send signals directly to the hearing nerve and brain. Modern hearing aids can distinguish between background noise and foreground noise.
If you have any difficulty hearing, it’s worth having a hearing test. To book a free consultation with an audiologist, get in touch with the Hearing Expert. You might be surprised to find that improving your hearing health really can improve your quality of life.
Permanent hearing loss needn’t be the end of the world. Even if hearing aids cannot help, people who are deaf can communicate with sign language and enjoy a high quality of life. Even young children with permanent hearing loss can adapt to their condition. To learn more about living with severe hearing loss, it’s worth visiting the websites for the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.