Hearing health and hearing aids

Our ability to hear is something we may often take for granted, assuming it may always be there.  For many, our powerful little ears work without us having to think twice — until one day you may realize the TV volume is at 40 when it used to be at 12. Or, you may start to notice a dull ring in your ear. It may be normal for many people to gradually lose some hearing as the years go by. But thankfully, hearing technology and devices, like hearing aids, are available to help support over-worked ears.  

What may cause hearing loss?

Have you ever read up on how our ears work? They’re small, mighty machines turning sound waves into vibrations, and then translating those vibrations into electrical signals for our brain to decipher. Unfortunately, because we use our ears so much, they may experience some wear and tear over time which may make them not work as well. Here are some common causes of hearing loss1:

  • Damage to the inner ear: Natural aging or exposure to loud noises may damage the little hairs inside your ear (the ones that send those sound signals to your brain). Ever leave a concert with a high-pitched ring in your ear? That’s probably a cry from your ear hairs telling you they’ve had a long night — and that they may have actually been damaged. 
  • A buildup of earwax: While our ears need a bit of wax to be healthy, producing too much may block the ear canal and may prevent sound waves from getting in there. A simple earwax removal might do the trick.
  • Ear infections, bone growths or tumors: Any one of these may cause hearing loss. If you suspect there’s something serious going on, see your doctor right away.
  • Ruptured eardrum (ouch): Any loud blast of noise or sudden change in pressure might rupture your eardrum and impact hearing. (Think loud fireworks or cannonballing too hard into a pool.)
  • Certain medicines: More than 200 medicines are considered ototoxic (toxic to the ears).2 If you’re taking a medicine for a serious infection, cancer, or heart disease, your doctor or care team likely talked with you about the potential impact to your hearing before you started taking it. If you still have concerns, schedule another conversation with your doctor to re-evaluate your current medicines and potential hearing side effects. 

Are there different kinds of hearing loss?

Our ears have three parts — the outer, middle and inner ear. It’s no surprise that because our ears are so complex, different kinds of hearing loss may happen in different parts of them.

  • Conductive hearing loss: This happens when sounds can’t get to your inner ear. With conductive hearing loss, you might have a hard time hearing soft sounds or notice that louder sounds are muffled. Medicine or surgery may be a way to fix it.3
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This is the most common type of permanent hearing loss and it happens when your inner ear gets damaged4. According to Mayo Clinic, medicine or surgery is usually not going to help you if you have sensorineural hearing loss — so you may want to talk to your doctor because you may want to start thinking about hearing technology, like hearing aids.4
  • Mixed hearing loss: This happens when there’s a problem with your outer or middle and inner ear. Basically, with mixed hearing loss, you may have conductive and sensorineural hearing loss at the same time.5

What causes ringing in ears?

Hearing your heartbeat in your ears? Or maybe a ringing, buzzing, or humming? You may have tinnitus. Tinnitus is a common (and non-serious) sign of an underlying condition, with age-related hearing loss being one of the most common.6 If your tinnitus makes it harder to enjoy daily activities, visit your doctor to talk about the best treatment option.

Hearing tests and screenings

The most common hearing test is pure-tone audiometry. These tests are usually taken in a quiet, sound-treated room or booth. You’ll likely wear headphones and listen to sounds that are played at different volumes and pitches to see which ones you can hear. Your results are likely shown on an audiogram (a graph that maps the degree of hearing loss). From there, ask your hearing specialist to chat with you about the best treatment or hearing technology solutions.7

Can I prevent hearing loss?

The short answer? Yes. To some degree. Remember those little hairs inside your ear that help collect sounds and send them to your brain? They naturally break down a little bit with age. But there are a few ways to help avoid other possible causes of hearing loss.8

  • Avoid or limit lots of noise: If you’re out somewhere and you may have to shout just to have a conversation, that’s a sign that the noise level may be too loud and may damage your hearing. If you have to be around loud noise, try to limit the amount of time you’re exposed.
  • Protect your ears: If you know you’ve got a concert coming up, a neighbor is consistently using loud power tools or it’s time to mow your lawn, invest in quality ear protection. 
  • Create a quiet environment: Be mindful about buying low-noise household appliances. And if you’re out somewhere with background noise (like a movie theater or restaurant) don’t be afraid to ask a staff member to turn the volume down.
  • Don’t smoke (or consider quitting): Tobacco may increase your chances of hearing loss.
  • Keep your ears clean: It's good to get in the habit of cleaning your ears — gently.
  • Check your meds: Certain medicines may harm your hearing. Re-visit the conversation with your doctor to talk about any risks.
  • Get a hearing test: It’s important to get your hearing checked regularly.

Hearing aids and other hearing technology

Fortunately, there are options on the market that may help improve hearing. Be sure to do your research and talk with your doctor or hearing specialist about which solutions might work best.9

  • Hearing aids: These are battery-powered devices you wear in or behind your ear that makes sounds louder.
  • Implants: These are small devices with two parts — one surgically implanted under your skin and one worn behind your ear. Cochlear implants are a popular kind of implant for people with severe hearing loss.
  • Apps: You may want to look into smartphone applications that do things like transcribe in real-time or amplify sound.
  • Assistive listening devices: These are hand-held microphones that amplify sound. The person you’re talking to might wear one around their neck so the device makes their voice louder and easier to hear. These can connect to hearing aids, implants, or headphones.
  • Captioning: Turning on closed caption during your favorite TV show will display the dialogue happening on screen. Using a captioned phone with a built-in screen that displays conversation text is another option.

Who should I see for help with my hearing?

If you’re concerned about your hearing, schedule a visit with your primary care provider (the doctor or provider you might see for your yearly exam). He or she will look in your ear for possible causes of hearing loss, like earwax buildup, inflammation or any structural changes. Your doctor may also do some general screenings before deciding whether or not you should see a specialist. If your doctor refers you to an ear, nose and throat doctor, or an audiologist, you’ll likely take a thorough hearing test to gauge the severity of any possible hearing loss. From there, you’ll talk treatment options.10

Footnotes

  1. Hearing loss- symptoms and causes www.mayoclinic.org, 2019.
  2. Ototoxic Medications (Medication Effects) www.asha.org, 2020.
  3. Conductive Hearing Loss www.asha.org, 2020.
  4. Sensorineural Hearing Loss www.asha.org, 2020.
  5. Mixed Hearing Loss www.asha.org, 2020.
  6. Tinnitus- Symptoms and causes www.mayoclinic.org, 2019.
  7. Hearing Tests for Adults: What to Expect www.webmd.com, 2020.
  8. 8 Ways to Prevent Hearing Loss www.webmd.com, 2020.
  9. Hearing Aids www.hearingloss.org, 2021.
  10. Hearing loss- diagnosis and treatment www.mayoclinic.org, 2021.