According to the World Health Organization, hundreds of millions worldwide have profound hearing loss, and billions are at risk of developing the condition. You might be one of them.
Sudden hearing loss is uncommon. In most cases, hearing loss develops slowly and the signs are often easy to miss. Early detection and intervention are the best ways to prevent hearing loss from becoming a disability. This guide will tell you about the symptoms of hearing loss so you know what to look out for.
Hearing Loss Symptoms
Hearing loss symptoms will vary somewhat depending on the type and cause of hearing loss.
For example, sensorineural hearing loss involves damage to the tiny hair cells of the inner ear or auditory nerve, so symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss may differ slightly from those of conductive hearing loss caused by a blockage, infection or defect in the outer ear and middle ear.
In addition to problems communicating and other signs of hearing impairment, you may experience symptoms like ear fullness, pain and dizziness or hear sounds that no one else can hear.
Hearing loss symptoms will present differently based on age.
Hearing Loss in Children and Adults
Adults tend to show more obvious ear symptoms and associated neurological or behavioral symptoms. Many of the signs are the same, whether it’s conductive hearing loss or a type of sensorineural hearing loss, like age-related hearing loss or noise-induced hearing loss.
The most apparent sign is trouble hearing. Some early indicators of hearing impairment include:
- You have a hard time understanding conversations over the phone or in a noisy environment.
- You find it difficult to distinguish between certain sounds. For example, people with hearing loss cannot tell the difference between a “P” and a “T” sound or an “S” and an “F.”
- Your friends and family remark that the volume of your TV or stereo is too high.
- People notice that you’re talking too loudly or louder than usual. People with hearing loss start to raise their voices to compensate.
In addition to a noticeable reduction in your hearing ability, other signs of hearing loss include:
- You may develop tinnitus, which presents as a ring, hum, buzz, or other sounds in one or both ears.
- If your hearing loss is caused by an ear infection, you may experience ear pain, fever or fluid drainage.
- You might have an oversensitivity to high-pitched sounds or loud noise. You might even find loud noises painful.
If your hearing loss is due to damage in the auditory nerve or the auditory cortex of the brain, you may experience associated neurological symptoms, such as:
- Dizziness and imbalance, particularly if there is damage in just one ear
- Repetitive, uncontrolled eye movements
- Loss of coordination
- Facial paralysis.
Hearing Loss In Newborns And Infants
The signs of hearing loss in newborns and infants are harder to discern because they haven’t developed speech yet. However, there are a few methods doctors can use to spot hearing impairments in infants.
Response to Sound
When a child is born, their ears are relatively well developed, but it can take up to six months for them to hear a full range of sounds. At the half-year point, they should start turning their heads when they hear sounds. If they don’t, it may signify a hearing problem.
Healthy babies display a Moro reflex, where they will respond to something that frightens them by extending their arms, flexing their back muscles and crying. The baby should respond this way when startled by a loud sound.
Infants also should respond emotionally when you speak to them. If you see no change in your child’s expression while you’re talking to them, they might need to have their hearing tested.
No Pre-Language Sounds
Making sounds like cooing or babbling is a crucial stage in a child’s language development, and hearing is essential to developing speech. If your child is more than a year old and still isn’t displaying pre-linguistic sounds, that could be a sign of hearing impairment or other communication disorders.
Withdrawn or Emotionless
Newborns may not develop a social smile or express themselves since they cannot hear and register what’s going on in their surroundings. They may lack expression and interact less with their parents and caregivers.
Getting Help for Hearing Loss Symptoms
In cases of sudden temporary hearing loss due to a blockage or another acute condition, your symptoms may resolve after a day or two. If they persist, you should set up an appointment with your primary care provider.
Document Your Hearing Loss Symptoms
While you’re waiting to see a doctor, take notes about your symptoms, including:
- Identify when you first noticed hearing problems
- Record how hearing loss has impacted your personal and professional life
- Note whether the hearing loss occurs in one ear or both
- Jot down any accompanying symptoms like tinnitus, vertigo, and pain
Your health care provider will ask you similar questions, so it’s good to have these answers prepared in advance. This will also help your doctor zero in on the cause of your hearing loss.
See a Doctor
When you visit your family physician, they will go through a few standard diagnostic steps. Your doctor will probably:
- Review your medical history and medications to rule out underlying causes
- Examine the outer ear and middle ear for signs of conductive hearing loss
- Administer a preliminary hearing test
- Conduct a basic physical exam to check your heart rate, blood pressure and cholesterol
If you’re showing symptoms of permanent hearing loss, the doctor will refer you to a hearing specialist for a whole battery of hearing tests and possible fitting for hearing aids.
Get Your Hearing Tested
An audiologist will administer a battery of tests to determine:
- If you have conductive, sensorineural or mixed hearing loss
- If the disorder is located in the outer ear, middle ear, or inner ear
- If your hearing loss is more pronounced in one ear or both
- The extent of your hearing loss
If you’re experiencing mild hearing loss, your hearing specialist might only recommend some coping strategies and measures to prevent further damage. In cases of severe hearing loss, they will probably suggest hearing aids.
Treating Hearing Loss
Your care team will recommend a course of treatment based on the cause and severity of your symptoms. Here are a few typical hearing loss treatments:
- Conductive hearing loss of the outer or middle ear may be treated by flushing out earwax impactions in the ear canal, antibiotics for ear infections, or reconstructive surgery for defects of the outer ear.
- Sensorineural hearing loss, including noise-induced and age-related hearing loss, is usually permanent and must be treated using hearing aids or cochlear implants in the inner ear.
In addition to wearing hearing aids, there are a few simple things people with permanent hearing loss can do to minimize the impact on their daily lives:
- Position your body or head toward the speaker when you’re having conversations to hear them better. If your hearing loss is in only one ear, turn the unaffected ear toward them.
- Be open with others about your condition and ask them for reasonable accommodation when necessary, like moving to an area with less background noise.
- Learn lip reading to help make up for lost hearing ability. Lip reading is easier to learn if you’ve had normal hearing for most of your life, and this strategy is most effective when paired with hearing aids.
Hearing Loss Prevention
Sometimes hearing loss is unavoidable. For example, some people are genetically prone to age-related hearing loss, while others may lose their hearing because of some congenital condition. However, most people can drastically reduce their risk with basic hearing loss preventative steps.
Limit Noise Exposure
Noise-induced hearing loss is common but also preventable. In the 21st century, most people live in cities where they are constantly surrounded by loud noise, and many people listen to loud music on headphones that blast damaging sound waves directly into the ear canal.
Prolonged exposure to sounds louder than 85 decibels is hazardous to your hearing.
Here are a few steps to reduce your risk of noise-induced hearing loss.
- Observe the “60-60 rule” by listening to your music at 60 percent volume for 60 percent of the time.
- Don’t stay in noisy areas, like clubs, bars and sporting events for long periods. If you’re at a concert or other loud event, periodically take a break and go outside.
Wear Hearing Protection
If you work in an industry that exposes you to loud noises all day, such as construction or manufacturing, wear ear protection, such as noise-canceling ear muffs or earplugs.
Your employer is required by law to provide hearing protection if your work consistently exposes you to 85 decibels of sound for eight hours continuously, according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
You shouldn’t be shy about wearing protection off the job. The sound at most concerts is loud enough to be heard even with earplugs in. In fact, it’s relatively common for musicians to wear hearing protection these days while on stage.
Get Tested Routinely
While many people go to the doctor or the dentist for an annual checkup, few have their hearing tested regularly.
Health experts recommend a hearing test every three to five years for adults with normal hearing.
You should get annual testing if you:
- Have a family history of hearing loss
- Take medications known to harm your ears
- Are at increased risk of hearing loss due to an underlying condition
- Are exposed to harmful levels of loud noise on the job
If you’re planning a family and hearing loss has been in your family history, you might want to get genetic testing. Testing for specific genes can identify as many as 60 percent of the genetic causes of hearing loss.
Avoid Substances That Harm Your Ears
Many substances can harm your ear, including more than 700 common medications in various pharmaceutical categories. These include:
- Anti-cancer drugs
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
Talk to your doctor about prescribing an alternative.
Your ears might also have a toxic reaction to toluene and styrene, which is present in:
- House cleaners
- Rubber gloves
- Paint thinners
Pay close attention to the chemicals you’re working with and find substitutes that are safe for your ears.
Whether you’re experiencing sudden hearing loss or a gradual reduction in your hearing ability as you age, you shouldn’t ignore the signs of hearing loss. Hearing loss symptoms include more than just an inability to hear. There’s a range of symptoms that appear simultaneously. It’s essential to know these red flags.
One of the most common causes of hearing loss is damage to the inner ear caused by loud noise exposure. To significantly reduce your risk of hearing loss, limit your exposure to loud noise and other sounds greater than 85 decibels. If you are experiencing profound hearing loss, you may need a hearing aid.
1. Le, T.N., Straatman, L.V., Lea, J. et al. Current insights in noise-induced hearing loss: a literature review of the underlying mechanism, pathophysiology, asymmetry, and management options. J of Otolaryngol – Head & Neck Surg 46, 41 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40463-017-0219-x