Merck Manual

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Quick Facts

Hearing Loss

By

The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Apr 2019| Content last modified Apr 2019
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NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
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What is hearing loss?

Hearing loss—a reduced ability to hear sound—makes daily life and communication harder. You may lose some or all of your hearing in one or both ears. If you've lost only some hearing, you may just think people aren't speaking clearly. Or you may notice only that it's hard to understand people talking when you're in a loud room, like at a party or restaurant.

  • Most hearing loss comes on gradually, over many years

  • Sudden hearing loss is less common and happens in a few hours or overnight

  • Earwax buildup, ear infections, aging, and loud noise are the most common causes of hearing loss

  • Less often, hearing loss is caused by a disease, a medicine, or a brain tumor

  • Children and older people should be screened for hearing loss

  • If you have hearing loss plus other symptoms, such as dizziness, ringing in your ears, or numbness in your face, you should see a doctor to be tested for other health problems

What causes hearing loss?

The most common causes of hearing loss include:

  • Too much earwax

  • Exposure to loud noise for a long time, such as from using power tools or listening to lots of loud music

  • Aging

  • A sudden, very loud noise, such as a gunshot or an explosion

  • Ear infections, particularly in children and young adults

Less common causes of hearing loss include:

  • An autoimmune disease (a disease that causes your body's immune system to attack its own tissues)

  • Birth defects

  • Certain medicines that have ear-damaging side effects

  • Injuries to the ear

  • Tumors inside your ear or in parts of your brain

When should I see a doctor for hearing loss?

See a doctor right away if you have hearing loss along with any of these warning signs:

  • Hearing loss in only one ear

  • Difficulty chewing or speaking

  • Numbness in your face

  • Dizziness

  • Loss of balance

If you have none of these warning signs and no other symptoms, you should see a doctor, but it doesn't have to be right away.

What will happen at my doctor visit?

Doctors will ask questions about your hearing loss and other symptoms. They'll ask about your health history and any medicines you take. They'll examine your ears and do hearing tests such as:

  • Audiometry (you'll wear headphones and raise your hand when you hear a sound; the goal is to measure the quietest sound you can hear)

  • Speech threshold tests (you'll hear words spoken at different volumes to test how loud they have to be before you can understand them)

  • Discrimination tests (two words that sound a lot alike will be spoken one after the other to test how well you can tell them apart)

  • Tympanometry (sound waves will be bounced off your eardrum to test how well sound passes through your ear)

Sometimes, doctors do more complicated tests, such as measuring electrical signals in your brain or doing an MRI or CT scan.

For children with hearing loss, doctors will check to see if:

  • They talk and understand language as well as they should for their age

How do doctors treat hearing loss?

Doctors treat the cause of your hearing loss if possible.

Many types of hearing loss have no cure, so treatments include devices and ways to help you communicate, such as:

Other things that can help with hearing loss include:

  • Alert systems to help you know when something is making a noise, such as a doorbell ringing, a smoke detector sounding, or a baby crying

  • Captions for videos

  • Sign language

  • Special sound systems for theaters, churches, or other places where other noises make it more difficult to hear

  • Special telephone systems

  • A cochlear implant (device that sends electrical signals directly into the nerves that help you hear)

  • A brain stem implant if you have damage to the nerves that help you hear

Children with hearing loss need special help learning to use language. This may include sign language and speech therapy.

How can I prevent hearing loss?

To prevent hearing loss, you can:

  • Limit contact with loud noise, including both how loud it is and how long you hear it

  • Use ear protectors, such as earplugs or noise-blocking earmuffs, when you have to be around loud noises

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
Click here for the Professional Version
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