Hearing Loss: Symptoms, Types, Causes, and Treatment

Hearing loss, which includes losing some or all hearing in one or both ears, can occur gradually and naturally or because of injury or illness Reasons behind hearing loss can range from genetics and aging to physical trauma like broken bones to working in loud environments. Illness or repeated infections can also gradually lessen the ability to hear completely, as can earwax or fluid buildup.

If hearing loss causes disruptions in daily life, is sudden, or is more apparent in one ear, see a healthcare professional for diagnosis and treatment. Hearing loss that comes with other symptoms, like ringing or dizziness, likely needs prompt medical attention.

This article covers the symptoms, types, and causes of hearing loss, as well as treating hearing loss, risk factors, and complications of hearing loss, and when to get help.

Symptoms of Hearing Loss

Hearing loss can occur in one or both ears. It can happen suddenly or get worse over time.

Common symptoms of hearing loss include:

  • Hearing more clearly in one ear than the other
  • Trouble following conversations, especially in loud environments
  • Needing the TV, radio, or phone speakers to be louder than others do
  • Difficulty hearing high-pitched sounds, including higher voices
  • Exhaustion from having to keep track of conversations or sounds
  • Difficulty differentiating high-pitched sounds from one another
  • Difficulty maintaining balance or feeling dizzy
  • Ringing or buzzing in the ear, also called tinnitus
  • Feeling sensations of fluid pressure in the eardrum
  • Pain in the eardrum
  • Discharge from the ears

Types and Causes of Hearing Loss

There are different types of hearing loss, depending on what causes it.

Conductive Hearing Loss (CHL)

Conductive hearing loss (CHL) is caused by a mechanical issue in the ear, such as bone or eardrum damage. CHL can usually be treated. Causes of CHL include:

  • Earwax buildup
  • Fluid buildup from an ear infection
  • An object stuck in the ear
  • Otosclerosis, a condition that causes abnormal bone growth of the bones in the inner ear
  • Scarring from repeated ear infections
  • A hole in the eardrum

Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SNHL)

Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) is when nerve endings in the ear are damaged and cannot detect sound fully or at all. SNHL usually cannot be treated. Common examples of SNHL include:

  • Hearing loss caused by aging
  • Hearing loss from exposure to loud environments, like construction sites or concerts

Other causes of SNHL include:

  • Acoustic neuroma, which is when a benign tumor grows in the inner ear, causing balance issues, dizziness, or even brain damage in extreme cases
  • Meningitis, which is inflammation of the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord
  • Measles complications caused by a highly contagious virus
  • Ménière’s disease, which is an inner ear disorder that usually affects one ear and includes ringing, congestion, and dizziness

Congenital Hearing Loss

Congenital hearing loss is hearing loss that is diagnosed at birth. Causes include:

  • Genetic hearing loss or hearing loss from birth defects
  • Infections passed on from a pregnant person to their baby

Hearing Loss From Injury

Injuries can cause sudden hearing loss, such as:

Hearing Loss and Emergency Care

If hearing loss in one or both ears is sudden or caused by an accident, or if hearing loss includes other symptoms like discharge or pain, get help as soon as possible, including at a hospital emergency department.

Hearing loss that happens quickly over days or weeks should also be diagnosed and treated by a healthcare professional.

What Medications Can Cause Hearing Loss?

Ototoxic medications are medications that can cause hearing loss. They include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which help with swelling and fever and include Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen), Aleve (naproxen), aspirin, and prescriptions medications like arthritis medications Cambia (diclofenac) and Celebrex (celecoxib)
  • Loop medications, which are diuretics that help with fluid buildup from certain conditions, including heart disease or high blood pressure
  • Some cancer medications, which include medications for radiation or chemotherapy

How to Treat Hearing Loss

There are some forms of hearing loss that can be treated at home, such as:

  • Earwax buildup: Earwax can be cleared with warm water via ear syringes or wax softeners.
  • Some objects in the ear can be removed at home but may require seeing a healthcare professional using precise instruments.

Other treatments for hearing loss include:

  • Surgeries to repair the eardrum or bones in the inner ear (ossiculoplasty)
  • Fluid removal to clear the eardrums

There are ways to manage hearing loss so that it doesn't interfere with daily life, including:

  • Using hearing aids inside the ears or cochlear implants, which are partly surgically inserted under the skin to help with hearing
  • Using assistive listening devices, such as FM (frequency modulation) systems, which capture sounds via a microphone that is linked to a person's headphones, and alerting devices that signal things like a doorbell or phone
  • Communication techniques like sign language, learning facial cues, and altering living environments include alert systems

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Hearing Loss?

Hearing tests can be conducted by an audiologist (hearing specialist) or otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor).

Examples of hearing tests include the following:

  • Sound tests: Acoustic reflex tests, also called middle ear muscle reflex (MEMR) tests, gauge whether a muscle in the ear responds to sound via a rubber device inserted in the ear. Pure-tone tests and tuning fork tests play tones in or around the ears to see if they are recognized.
  • Speech and word recognition test: These tests measure the ability to listen to speech in normal and noisy environments.
  • Tympanometry test: A small device is inserted into the ear canal to determine if there are abnormal movements in the eardrum caused by fluid or tear in the eardrum.

Other tests me be needed to determine the cause of hearing loss, including:

  • CT (computed tomography) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans of the head to view fluid or a tumor
  • Tympanometry, which uses air pressure to record the eardrum's reactions

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If hearing loss causes disruptions in daily life or doesn't improve, see healthcare provider. Other instances in which hearing loss requires medical attention include:

  • If hearing is better in one ear
  • Sudden hearing loss
  • Tinnitus, or ringing in the ear
  • Ear pain, headaches, or numbness in the body

Summary

Hearing loss can happen in one or both ears and can be either gradual or sudden. Symptoms of hearing loss include difficulty following conversations and hearing high-pitched sounds, needing the volume louder than other people, and exhaustion with trying to hear throughout the day.

Symptoms can include tinnitus (ringing in the ear), fluid buildup in the ear, dizziness, or headaches. Infections like the measles or mumps, loud environments like construction sites and concerts, and physical trauma can also cause hearing loss.

Treating hearing loss can include home care like using an earwax removal kit. Surgeries to fix eardrums or bones in the inner ear are also treatment options for hearing loss. Hearing loss that cannot be reversed can be managed with devices like hearing aids or cochlear implants and communication systems like visual alerts or sign language. Diagnosing hearing loss can include sound tests and CT or MRI scans to check for tumors or fluids.

A Word From Verywell

Hearing loss can be disconcerting, but there are treatment and management options that can help. The key is getting diagnosed early. If hearing loss is a physical issue, such as earwax buildup or a bone fracture in the ear, there are treatment options, such as wax cleaning kits or surgery, that can reverse the damage.

If you're experiencing hearing loss, get help as soon as you can. Early treatment and/or management could make a world of difference in experiencing the world fully and safely.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I treat hearing loss?

    Hearing loss treatment varies depending on what causes it. If it's caused by earwax buildup, a fracture, or infections, it can be treated at home with wax removal kits or with surgery. If your hearing loss is caused by nerve damage, such as age- or sound-related hearing loss or trauma, you can use tools to manage daily life.

  • What causes hearing loss?

    Hearing loss can be mechanical, such as conductive hearing loss (CHL), or it can be caused by nerve damage, which is known as sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL). Examples of CHL include earwax buildup, scarring from infections, and foreign objects in the ear (which should be removed by a medical professional most of the time).

    Examples of SNHL include age-related hearing loss, hearing loss from loud environments, or hearing loss from infections like Ménière’s disease, which causes ringing in the ear and dizziness. For some people, hearing loss is caused by accidents like head traumas or scuba diving, while others are born with hearing loss (congenital hearing loss).

  • When is hearing loss a problem?

    Hearing loss is a problem when it interferes with daily life or creates exhaustion from trying to tune into the environment, it's likely time to consider medical attention.

17 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Neha Kashyap
Neha is a New York-based health journalist who has written for WebMD, ADDitude, HuffPost Life, and dailyRx News. Neha enjoys writing about mental health, elder care, innovative health care technologies, paying for health care, and simple measures that we all can take to work toward better health.