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Hearing Loss

Hearing loss affects all facets of your life, including your ability to connect easily with others. Hearing loss can be mild or severe, temporary or permanent. It can affect one ear or both ears.

Some people are born with hearing loss. Others begin to experience hearing loss in midlife. By age 60, nearly one in three adults experience signs of hearing loss. About half of all adults in their 70s and older have some type of hearing loss. 

Hearing loss can be so gradual that you may not even realize how bad your hearing has become. Hearing loss can affect your quality of life as you start to avoid situations where it is difficult to hear. It becomes more challenging for others to communicate with you as well.

For children, even a minimal hearing loss can negatively affect their speech development, behavior and education.

In some cases, medication or surgery may restore your hearing. If your hearing loss is permanent, hearing aids or auditory implants may help you hear much better. 

Signs of hearing loss in adults

Signs of hearing loss in adults may include one or more of the following:

  • Hearing muffled or muted speech
  • Difficulty understanding conversations when in noisy spaces, such as restaurants
  • Having tinnitus, a constant or sporadic sound in one or both ears, such as ringing, buzzing, roaring or hissing
  • Feeling of pressure in one or both ears
  • Needing to turn the volume up high on the TV or other devices

Signs of hearing loss in children

If you notice any of these behaviors in your child, he or she may be experiencing hearing loss:

  • Speech is unclear or delayed
  • Does not follow directions accurately
  • Frequently appears to not be paying attention when spoken to
  • Often says, "What?" or "Huh?"
  • Watches TV with the volume up high

Hearing loss causes

Many factors can cause hearing loss, including the following:

  • Aging: You may begin to notice some hearing loss in your 50s. It typically continues to get gradually worse as you get older, a condition called presbycusis.
  • Noise: Long-time exposure to loud sounds, whether sudden or persistent, can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss.
  • Heredity: Hearing loss can be congenital (present at birth) and is known to be related to more than 400 genetic conditions. Your genetic makeup may also make you more susceptible to hearing loss later in life.
  • Diseases or infections: Diseases such as Meniere's disease, meningitis, or autoimmune inner ear disorders and infections caused by fluid in the ears can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss.
  • Ruptured eardrum: Caused by a loud noise, change in pressure or puncture, a ruptured eardrum results in hearing loss that is usually temporary.
  • Blockages: Excessive earwax or bone growths or tumors in the outer or middle ear can cause temporary hearing loss.

Types of hearing loss

Sensorineural hearing loss

  • This is the most common type of hearing loss.
  • It is often permanent and is caused by damage to the inner ear (cochlea) or hearing nerve.
  • It can be present at birth or develop gradually due to aging or noise exposure.
  • See your primary care doctor right away if you experience sudden hearing loss, which is a sensorineural hearing loss that may be reversible if treated early.

Conductive hearing loss

  • This is related to conditions of the outer ear (ear canal) or middle ear (eardrum) that are blocking transmission of sound to the inner ear.
  • It is often temporary.
  • It is usually treated effectively with medication or surgery.

Mixed hearing loss

  • This is a combination of sensorineural and conductive hearing loss.

How can I get help for hearing loss?

If you become concerned about your hearing or your child's hearing, call your primary care doctor. Your doctor may refer you to an otorhynolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor or ENT) for further evaluation or to an audiologist for comprehensive testing of your hearing.

Care for hearing loss at Rush

Hearing specialists at Rush provide comprehensive care for hearing loss for all ages.

Diagnosis

Your doctor may order one or more of the following tests:

  • Audiometry: An audiologist administers this comprehensive hearing test, which measures the extent and type of your hearing loss.
  • Tympanometry: Your specialist or audiologist inserts a probe into your ear that measures how your ear and eardrum react to sound and different pressures.
  • Imaging: Your doctor may order an X-ray, CT or MRI scan to check for abnormalities, fractures or tumors.

Treatment

Depending on the type and extent of your hearing loss, your doctor may recommend one or more of the following treatments:

  • Medication: Your primary care doctor or specialist may prescribe antibiotics if you have an ear infection, steroid medications at the onset of sudden hearing loss or other medications that may help with conditions such as tinnitus.
  • Surgery: Depending on the cause of your hearing loss, your specialist may recommend surgery such as eardrum repair, inserting tubes to drain liquid or repairing the small bones in your middle ear.
  • Hearing aids: If your hearing loss is permanent, you may benefit from hearing aids to make sounds louder and more distinct.
    • Many customizable in-the-ear and behind-the-ear styles are available.
    • Audiologists at Rush will work with you to determine which hearing aid may help you hear better and improve your quality of life.
    • Your audiologist will custom fit your hearing aid to make sure you can hear spoken words better while keeping you safe and comfortable when exposed to loud sounds.
  • Cochlear implant: If your hearing loss is permanent and you are profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing, your team may recommend a cochlear implant. Your surgeon implants a small electronic device behind the ear to restore partial hearing by converting sounds into electrical impulses on your auditory nerve. It is different from normal hearing and you will need to learn to hear in a new way. 
  • Auditory osseointegrated implant: If your hearing loss is severe but you have a functioning cochlea, your team may recommend an auditory osseointegrated implant, also known as Baha (bone-anchored hearing aid). This implant helps sound vibrations bypass a nonfunctioning middle ear. It uses bone conduction to send sound vibrations from the hearing aid to the cochlea (inner ear).

Why choose Rush for care of hearing loss

  • Comprehensive ENT services: In the Department of Otorhinolaryngology, specialists address a full range of ear, nose and throat (ENT) conditions, including hearing loss affecting both adults and children. The Rush ENT program is rated among the best in the nation by U.S. News & World Report and is the highest ranked ENT program in Illinois.
  • Expertise and experience: Audiologists at Rush provide sophisticated hearing tests for children and adults, auditory rehabilitation and hearing aids and auditory osseointegrated implants to help you hear better. If you have sensorineural hearing loss and can't benefit from hearing aids, experts with the Rush Auditory Implant Program are committed to improving your ability to communicate. 
  • Personalized care: Because no two people experience hearing loss the same way, ENT specialists and audiologists at Rush provide customized treatment for each patient. They will work with you to find the best solution for your individual needs. 

Departments and programs that treat this condition

Quick treatment is crucial for this often-mysterious condition.

Having trouble hearing? If so, you're not alone, and there are solutions to help you hear better.

Too Much Noise?

From headphones to hair dryers to heavy city traffic, learn about common noises that could put you at risk for permanent hearing loss if you don't take precautions or turn down the volume.