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How Common Is Hearing Loss?

Do the words "huh?" and "what?" frequent your conversations? Anyone can experience hearing loss — even children — but some people are more at risk.

Do you strain to hear the TV or miss half of conversations? You may be dealing with hearing loss. Hearing loss can strike at any age, from childhood through older adulthood, and can be caused by anything from an illness to a head injury.

Hearing loss is defined as the reduced ability to hear noises — it can happen in both ears or only one. More rare is total hearing loss (deafness) — the loss of ability to hear at all. Some hearing loss is normal as you age, starting as early as 20 years of age. Often, hearing loss is a gradual problem; sudden hearing loss is pretty rare. Common causes of hearing loss include:

  • Infections
  • A genetic abnormality
  • A congenital birth defect
  • Toxicity
  • Injury or trauma to the ear or skull
  • Persistent exposure to loud noises
  • Getting older
  • Ear wax or fluid in the ear

It's also important to consider the type of hearing loss sustained, which is based on which part of the ear is damaged. The main types of hearing loss include:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss. This is characterized by damage sustained to the inner ear area or the nerves that connect the inner ear and brain. This is permanent hearing loss that can't be treated or corrected.
  • Conductive hearing loss. This type of hearing loss occurs when the ear is unable to properly carry sound, resulting in reduced hearing — typically not complete hearing loss. It usually results from a problem in the outer or middle ear. Conductive hearing loss can often be corrected through surgery or other treatments.
  • Mixed hearing loss. This is a combination of sensorineural and conductive hearing loss, and occurs when there is damage to both the inner and middle or outer ear.
  • Unilateral hearing loss. This type of hearing loss occurs in only one ear, with normal hearing in the other ear. It can occur for many reasons, but often the reason is unknown. It can affect children and adults alike, and in varying degrees of severity.
How Hearing Loss Is Measured

Tests to diagnose hearing loss include:

  • A few types of hearing tests (including electronic and responses to sounds)
  • Imaging tests, including a CT scan or MRI
  • Head X-rays
  • Ear exam
  • Tympanometry (a test that measures pressure in the ear)

A hearing test can measure the softest range at which sound can be heard. Here are the measurements of hearing loss in varying degrees:

  • Normal hearing: -10 to 15 dB HL
  • Slight hearing loss: 16 to 25 dB HL
  • Mild hearing loss: 26 to 40 db HL
  • Moderate hearing loss: 41 to 55 dB HL
  • Moderately severe hearing loss: a range of 56 to 70 dB HL
  • Severe hearing loss: a range of 71 to 90 dB HL
  • Profound hearing loss: a range of hearing loss of 91 dB HL or greater
Are You at Risk for Hearing Loss?

Many factors can make a person more susceptible to hearing loss. Here are some of them:

  • Exposure to loud noises at work (in factories, for example)
  • Congenital or hereditary defects of the ear or that affect the ear
  • An injury to the skull
  • Exposure to very loud noises (music, fireworks, guns, and explosions, for example)
  • A perforated eardrum
  • Fluid in the ears
Living With Hearing Loss

People with hearing loss don't have to live in silence — many times, hearing devices, like hearing aids, can help restore hearing. Here are some ways to manage hearing loss:

  • Use a hearing aid
  • Have a cochlear implants (which are surgically implanted in the ear)
  • Use devices to magnify sounds (listening systems for TV or radio or amplifying devices for the telephone)

If you have hearing loss, you can learn how to communicate with people differently — and don't be shy to ask people to slow down and speak clearly. Pay close attention, and try to limit background noise when carrying on a conversation. Just because you may need to communicate a bit differently doesn't mean that you have to miss out on social interaction and conversations.

Everyday Health

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