Causes of hearing loss

There are three main types of hearing loss with different causes and features. Each type of hearing loss relates to the specific part of the hearing system where the damage has occurred.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

This is the most common types of hearing loss. It can also be called ‘nerve deafness’ or ‘perceptive loss’. It occurs when the delicate structures of the inner ear or cochlear and/or its associated nerves are damaged. It is usually permanent and can affect sound clarity and amplification where voices may sound like mumbles or are distorted.

The most common causes of sensorineural hearing loss include:

  • Prolonged exposure to loud noise
  • Age related changes
  • Illnesses such as meningitis, measles, mumps and Menieres disease
  • Inherited factors

Conductive Hearing Loss

This occurs when there is a problem with the outer or middle ear. Problems in these areas usually relate to a mechanical disruption of the pathway of sound through to the inner ear. This results in a decrease in perceived loudness of a sound to the sufferer and can often be treated with surgery or other forms of medical management.

The most common causes of conductive hearing loss include:

Outer ear canal:

  • Blockage by ear wax, or foreign objects
  • Ear canal infection or ‘swimmers ear’
  • Bony growths in the canal known as exostoses or ‘surfers ear’
  • Birth injuries

Middle ear:

  • Middle ear infection or ‘glue ear’ (a build-up of fluid) – most common in children
  • Perforated eardrum that does not heal’
  • Damage to the tiny bones that conduct sound. For example Otosclerosis
  • Benign growth in the middle ear (Cholesteatoma)

Mixed Hearing Loss

This is when damage has occurred to both the middle ear and inner ear system. This can happen when there are multiple conditions co-existing or in cases of Otosclerosis.

Other Terms Used to Describe Types of Hearing Loss

When it occurred:

* Acquired – begins after birth

* Congenital – hearing loss present at birth either due to inherited or genetic factors, or other conditions like maternal health problems or birth injury

Whether it is permanent or temporary:

* A temporary hearing loss can be caused by a medical condition such as glue ear or by exposure to a very loud noise on a once off basis (known as a temporary threshold shift).

Age-related hearing loss

Age is the biggest single cause of hearing loss. As most of us grow older, the daily wear and tear on our hearing systems gradually reduces their effectiveness. When your hearing starts to weaken, it becomes more difficult to hear soft voices and high-frequency sounds, such as the voices of children and women. Sufferers of age-related hearing loss can also find it very hard to follow conversations in the presence of background noise.

Because the loss is gradual, you may not realize that you’ve lost some of your ability to hear. Often, family members notice age-related hearing loss before the sufferer becomes aware of it.

Elderly couple reading a book together

Age-related hearing loss

Age is the biggest single cause of hearing loss. As most of us grow older, the daily wear and tear on our hearing systems gradually reduces their effectiveness. When your hearing starts to weaken, it becomes more difficult to hear soft voices and high-frequency sounds, such as the voices of children and women. Sufferers of age-related hearing loss can also find it very hard to follow conversations in the presence of background noise.

Because the loss is gradual, you may not realize that you’ve lost some of your ability to hear. Often, family members notice age-related hearing loss before the sufferer becomes aware of it.

Protect your hearing

Take good care of your hearing by protecting your ears in these situations – or avoiding them completely.

3 people talking in a noisy background

Background noise

Environments where you have to shout to make yourself heard over background noise

Concert venue

Live music

Situations where high sound levels make it difficult to hear for several hours afterwards

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