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Most adults will experience gradual hearing loss over time as they age, called presbycusis. Sounds and normal speech may become muffled, and you may need to turn the volume up on the television or radio. Many factors can cause hearing loss, and it’s essential to identify and rectify any damage as soon as possible.
Understanding the Ear’s Anatomy
Before we dive into the causes of hearing loss, it’s important to know the mechanisms of the ear and how it interprets sound waves to your brain. The ear consists of the inner ear, middle ear, and outer ear.
When sound waves travel from the outside world and the outer ear, they pass through the ear canal to the eardrum. The tiny bones in the middle ear are called ossicles (the hammer, anvil and stirrup) and amplify the vibrations as they pass through to the inner ear.
When the sound waves reach the inner ear, they travel through the fluid-filled cochlea — the snail-shaped structure that contains thousands of nerve cells with tiny hairs. These hairs convert sound waves into electrical signals that are sent to the auditory cortex of your brain. Different vibrations send different signals to your brain and are interpreted uniquely.
Types and Causes of Hearing Loss:
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss occurs in the inner ear and is the most common type of hearing loss. The inner ear nerves and hair follicles that transmit signals to the brain become damaged due to age, noise exposure, or some trauma. Sensorineural hearing loss cannot be corrected with surgery but can be treated with the help of hearing aids.
Causes of Sensorineural Hearing Loss Include:
- Chronic exposure to loud noises
If you work in a construction environment, on a farm, or anywhere where you’re constantly exposed to loud noises from heavy machinery, this can cause hearing loss or hearing damage.
- Strain from loud concerts or events
Standing too close to large speakers in any environment is detrimental to your hearing health, especially at concerts. If you attend loud concerts, try to avoid the amplifiers or wear protective earplugs if it’s unavoidable. Take breaks from the sound and step outside to prevent prolonged exposure.
- Traumatic brain or skull injuries
Hearing loss can be associated with traumatic brain injuries because the part of your brain that processes sound, the auditory cortex, can be damaged.
- Congenital hearing loss
Genetic factors or birth defects can affect hearing and alter the ear’s structure. Hearing loss birth defects affect about one to two of every 1,000 births and can be identified by how an infant reacts to and makes sounds.
- Meniere’s disease
Meniere’s disease is an inner ear condition that causes vertigo or the sudden feeling that the room is spinning. During an attack, you may feel off-balance or nauseous and suddenly lose hearing in one or both ears.
- Tumours or growth inside of the ear
Acoustic neuroma is a slow-growing and non-cancerous tumour that develops on the vestibular nerve from your inner ear to your brain. This nerve directly affects your balance and hearing, and pressure can cause vertigo and hearing loss. Symptoms can take years to develop, so if you’re experiencing tinnitus or trouble with your balance, it’s important to see a doctor straight away.
- Viral infections
Several viral infections can cause hearing loss, such as measles, mumps and meningitis.
Some prescribed medicines can damage the cochlea and are a common cause of hearing loss, especially in older adults that take many medications. Aspirin in large doses, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen, and certain antibiotics can all cause hearing loss. Symptoms are more likely to occur when more than one of these drugs is taken simultaneously. It’s important to be alert and aware of your body when taking medications and report any changes to your doctor.
Conductive Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss occurs in the middle and outer ear, typically due to fluid or earwax buildup. This blockage prevents sounds from entering the inner ear and can be easily treated medicinally or with ear wax removal services. It may be difficult to hear soft or muffled sounds with conductive hearing loss, but it isn’t always permanent.
Other Causes of Conductive Hearing Loss Are:
- Swimmer’s ear
Swimmer’s ear is an infection in the outer ear caused by water that remains in your ear and creates a moist environment for bacteria to flourish. Putting fingers, cotton swabs, or foreign objects in your ears can also cause a swimmer’s ear by damaging the layer of skin lining your ear canal.
Allergies are your immune system’s response to a perceived threat and can affect all parts of the ear. Histamines can create sneezing, itchiness, pressure, congestion or ringing of the ears, leading to temporary conductive hearing loss.
- Ear infections
Common ear infections can cause temporary hearing loss. An ear infection can block the sound travelling through the ear canal and cause muffled hearing. Once the infection clears up, it’s likely your hearing will begin to improve.
- Sinusitis drainage
Much like an ear infection, sinus infections can cause hearing loss. Once the fluid has drained from your ears, your hearing should improve. Recurring ear infections can scar the ear canal tissue and prevent sound waves from travelling smoothly, resulting in hearing loss.
Mixed Hearing Loss
As the name suggests, mixed hearing loss is a combination of both sensorineural and conductive hearing loss.
Degrees of Hearing Loss
The severity of hearing loss depends on many factors, and there are four clinical classifications of hearing loss to help determine treatment options.
1. Mild Hearing Loss
You will likely hear most speech sounds with mild hearing loss, but softer sounds will be muffled and difficult to perceive.
2. Moderate Hearing Loss
Those who have moderate hearing loss will struggle to understand a normal level of conversation.
3. Severe Hearing Loss
If you have severe hearing loss, you will hear muffled, if any, normal conversation level speech and a few loud sounds.
4. Profound Hearing Loss
With profound hearing loss, you may be able to hear extremely loud noises but no speech at all.
Symptoms of Hearing Loss
Most causes of hearing loss aren’t reversible and can creep up slowly over time. If treated when the initial symptoms arise, it can easily be managed to improve your hearing and prevent further damage so you can lead a normal and comfortable life. Contact your doctor or an audiologist for a hearing test immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Constant ringing, buzzing or hissing sounds
- Sudden hearing loss
- Hearing loss that interferes with your day-to-day activities
- Ear pain or discomfort
- Numbness in the ear
- Frequently asking people to repeat themselves
- Trouble hearing sounds or conversations with background noise
- Noticing yourself turning up the volume when listening to the TV or radio
- The pressure of muffled sounds.
Hearing loss can significantly impact your quality of life and ability to function normally. It can even cause feelings of anxiety and depression in some adults. Because their decreased ability to socialise and keep up in conversations, can induce feelings of isolation and withdrawal. Even if you are embarrassed about potential hearing loss, you must get an examination immediately if you are experiencing symptoms.
Protecting Your Ears From Noise Damage
Preventing noise damage (or further damage) to your ears is crucial. Limiting the duration and intensity of your exposure to noise will protect your hearing. Use earplugs or earmuffs when available at work or at loud concerts where you know you will be exposed to high sound decibels, and turn down the volume on your headphones whenever possible.
Consider regular hearing tests with your GP or a professional auditory specialist, especially if you’re experiencing symptoms or are continuously exposed to loud noises.
There are many causes of hearing loss. Hearing loss is a normal part of life, just as ageing is, and there are many modern solutions to help you overcome it and gain your confidence back. Call our specialists on 0800 028 6763 for a consultation.