Hearing loss is one of the biggest health concerns in the U.S. It is the third most commonly reported physical condition, following arthritis and heart disease. It affects roughly 20 percent of the American population and can strike people of all ages.
The most common causes of hearing loss are noise exposure and aging.
What Can Cause Hearing Loss?
The ear is separated into three sections; the outer ear (the ear lobe and ear canal), the middle ear (where the middle ear bones are contained), and the inner ear (the cochlea). Each of these sections has its own array of possible pathologies which can cause hearing loss. Below we’ve provided you with possible causes of hearing loss. While these are only a small sampling of ear-related problems, we would like to help you to be aware of the things that can affect our ears.
Wax occlusion: If an excessive amount of wax develops in the ear and causes it to become greater than 80% blocked, hearing loss can occur. Patients are advised to seek the help of their primary care doctor or an ear nose and throat doctor to have wax removed; removing wax on one’s own can sometimes be more harmful than helpful.
Outer ear infections (otitis externa): Outer ear infections can be caused by a variety of things including bacterial infections and dermatitis. The ear canal as well as the auricle can become irritated, swollen and itchy. If the infection reaches a point when the debris can close off the ear canal it can cause hearing loss. If you experience any pain, itching or irritation in your ears it is best to seek medical attention.
Hearing loss caused by conditions affecting the outer or middle ear is generally referred to as “conductive hearing loss”. Conductive hearing loss can often be treated with medical intervention or surgery.
Middle ear infections: Colds and upper respiratory infections can often cause fluid accumulation in the middle ear. Sometimes this fluid may become infected causing pain and discomfort. Presence of fluid in the middle ear can prevent the eardrum from moving easily, which prevents sound from being transmitted effectively through the middle ear, therefore causing hearing loss. Middle ear infections are most common among children and, although they are often temporary, chronic ear infections are problematic. Chronic ear infections can prevent a child from hearing in school or prevent them from hearing certain sounds while learning language. If you or your child have problems with ear infections it is important to contact your primary care doctor or an ear, nose, and throat physician.
Hearing loss due to conditions affecting the inner ear is generally referred to as “sensorineural hearing loss”. Sensorineural hearing loss is generally permanent and cannot be medically corrected.
Presbycusis (age-related hearing loss): Contained within the cochlea are tiny hair cells responsible for sending auditory information to the brain. As we age these cells start to die off. The most vulnerable cells are the ones that transmit high-frequency speech information, which is why conversation becomes much more difficult as we get older. While we can’t completely prevent age-related hearing loss, we can do our best to protect the hearing we have left from other factors which may affect hearing.
Noise induced hearing loss: Loud noise is one of many factors which can affect our hearing every day. Noise induced hearing loss is a product of how loud a sound is as well as how long it is listened to. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an 90dB sound can be listened to for up to eight hours before it damages hearing, as the level of the sound increases the amount of time it can be listened to safely decreases significantly. Although it is hard to parse out which factors (age, noise, etc) have specifically caused one’s hearing loss, it is still very important to protect your hearing when around loud noise. See our hearing protection page to learn about a variety of ways to protect your hearing.
Ototoxicity: This term refers to medication that can have harmful effects on the inner ear and therefore on one’s hearing ability. Many chemotherapeutic drugs as well as aminoglycosides are ototoxic. If you are taking a drug that can be harmful to the inner ear it is important to have your hearing monitored so that any changes in hearing status may be reported to your doctor and managed accordingly.
Sudden sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is rapid in onset, as opposed to gradual in onset like presbycusis or noise induced hearing loss. There are many causes of sudden sensorineural hearing loss, one being viruses. Regardless of what the cause may be, it is important to seek immediate medical attention if you experience a sudden hearing loss.
Types of Hearing Loss
Conductive Hearing Loss
Problems affecting the outer or middle ear are referred to as conductive hearing losses. This hearing loss affects a person’s ability to conduct sound to the inner ear. These losses are common in children who suffer from ear infections, but can also be caused by a range of adult problems from simple ear wax to congenital malformations and calcium growths.
Hearing losses of this nature are often temporary and may be medically and/or surgically treatable. Unfortunately, they represent only about three to five percent of our nation’s hearing difficulties.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
The majority of hearing difficulties result from damage to the inner ear, referred to as sensorineural or nerve hearing losses. Living in a noisy culture, we are injuring our ears at an alarming rate. Power tools, factories, guns, lawnmowers, hairdryers, MP3 players, surround sound and freeways are just a few ways in which we are slowly and imperceptibly eroding our hearing — lessening the sharpness and reducing the clarity of the spoken word. In addition, there are genetic factors, illnesses, chemicals and medications which can also affect our ability to communicate. These problems are typically permanent in nature and do not respond to medical or surgical intervention. In time because of these difficulties, those with hearing loss often begin to withdraw from social gatherings and retreat into themselves.
Mixed Hearing Loss
Mixed hearing loss is the combination of conductive and sensorineural causes.
Tinnitus is the perception of sound when an external source of sound is absent. Tinnitus creates a ringing noise that can also be described as buzzing, humming, whistling, tunes or songs. The sound perceived may range from background noise up to noise loud enough to drown out all other external sounds. Tinnitus is not a disease, but a symptom resulting from a range of causes, with the most common being hearing loss. A medical evaluation is strongly recommended for those who may be experiencing tinnitus to rule out any health complications. Once evaluated, those who experience tinnitus can receive help from their audiologist, who can offer devices and techniques to help manage or minimize debilitating tinnitus.
Call Evergreen Speech and Hearing Clinic at (425) 454-1883 for more information or to schedule an appointment.