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What is hearing loss?

Hearing loss is typically identified as either sensorineural, conductive, a mix of these, or single-sided.

Sensorineural hearing loss.

Unlike conductive hearing loss, sensorineural conditions only affect the inner ear or neural pathways. It is the most common type of hearing loss. Sound is transmitted through the outer and middle ears normally but the inner ear is less efficient in transmitting to the brain for processing, usually due to damage to the auditory nerve, the cochlea, and/or hair cells (the fine nerve endings inside the cochlea).

Sensorineural hearing loss results in reduction of the following:

  • Overall volume

  • Ability to understand speech clearly

  • Sensitivity to higher frequencies, including soft high-pitched consonants such as s, f, th, and sh

It also affects the ability to understand high-pitched voices and sounds such as birds singing. Hearing aids are usually a preferred solution for this type of hearing loss.

Sensorineural hearing loss can be congenital (present at birth) or acquired later in life. Common congenital causes include the following:

  • Hereditary conditions

  • Viral infections

  • Premature birth

  • Injuries resulting in extreme lack of oxygen during birth

Later-in-life causes may include the following:

  • Medications with side effects that damage ears

  • Brain injury

  • Noise exposure

  • Aging

  • Ear infections

  • Meningitis, encephalitis, or other diseases

Conductive hearing loss.

Conductive hearing loss usually results from diseases or disorders that interrupt the sound transmission from the outer and/or middle ear into the inner ear. In cases where the conductive hearing loss is temporary, it is often possible to correct the condition with surgery, medication, or both. In other situations, hearing aids can significantly improve hearing.

Common causes of conductive hearing loss include the following:

  • Birth defects or deformities

  • Injury to the outer ear

  • Ear infections

  • Head trauma

  • Blockage of the ear canal

  • Perforation or stiffening of the ear drum or middle ear bones

With conductive hearing loss, the inner ear works properly but something is keeping sound from passing through the outer/middle ear to the inner ear.

Mixed hearing loss.

Some people have a mix of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. Treatment options will likely include both medical intervention and hearing aids.

Single-sided hearing loss.

You might be able to hear well out of one ear and not at all out of the other. Single-sided deafness—also known as unilateral hearing loss—can make it hard to understand speech in loud environments or localize sound. You might miss important alerts or conversation coming from the side without hearing, and find understanding speech a challenge.

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