The 3 Types of Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is a condition where you can’t hear sound completely in either or both of your ears. Hearing loss is a progressive disorder, which means that it occurs gradually and spreads over time. About 25% of seniors between 65 to 74 years old experience hearing loss. However, hearing loss is not limited by the age of a person; a lot of things can lead to it.

Other names you may see for hearing loss include:

  • Loss of hearing deafness
  • Decreased hearing
  • Deafness

In this article, we will discuss the three major types of hearing loss and the different ways to manage each of them.

Close up of a doctor checking the ear of his male patient

Vladimir Vladimirov / Getty Images

Types

The three major types of hearing loss are conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss, and mixed hearing loss. Read on to find out what causes each of these types, where they occur in the ear, and whether treatment is available.

Conductive

With conductive hearing loss, sound waves are unable to reach the inner ear (cochlea). With this type of hearing loss, the sound waves may not get to the cochlea because of earwax, foreign materials in the ear canal, or eardrum damage. Also, the middle ear could be infected, have a bone deformation, or be filled with fluid.

Conductive hearing loss may be treated using medical or surgical methods, although these options aren't available for everyone. Children who have had repeated ear infections or insert foreign objects in their canal may experience conductive hearing loss.

Sensorineural

This is the most common type of hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when the cochlea or auditory nerve becomes damaged. It generally happens when some of the cochlear hair cells become damaged.

Old age, injury, disease, certain medications, and exposure to loud noise over time can be responsible for this loss. Some people could also have this condition genetically passed from their parents.

Unlike conductive hearing loss, this loss may not be surgically or medically treated. Instead, hearing aids are more helpful for people in this category because their hearing nerves and hair cells have been affected.

Mixed

It is possible to have a little of both sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. Some people initially have sensorineural hearing loss and develop conductive hearing loss later.

General Causes of Hearing Loss

  • Old age
  • Earwax blockage
  • Ear infection
  • Tumors
  • Eardrum injury or damage
  • Listening to loud sounds for a long time

Conductive vs. Sensorineural

Sensorineural hearing loss is typically the defect caused by damage to your hearing nerves or inner ear. If you have this type, it is expected that you'll experience problems in converting sound waves to signals that your brain can understand and translate.

Conductive hearing loss is when sound can’t pass from your outer or middle ear at all. Things like fluid buildup, ear infections, eardrum rupture, tumors, earwax blockage, foreign objects, and abnormal bone growth can cause it. 

Do These Types Sound Different?

Both types of hearing loss usually exhibit similar signs. Specifically, people with conductive hearing loss hear muffled sounds whereas people with sensorineural hearing loss hear distorted sounds in addition to muffled sounds.

If there are problems with hearing before and after the inner ear, then it is considered a mixed hearing loss. 

Some people may only hear in one ear right from birth, as a child, or it can develop when they are an adult. This is what is called single-sided deafness. It could be caused by sensorineural or conductive hearing loss, and the treatment depends on the type of loss and the duration.

Single-Sided Deafness

Some people may only hear in one ear right from birth, as a child, or it can develop when they are an adult. This is what is called single-sided deafness. It could be caused by sensorineural or conductive hearing loss, and the treatment depends on the type of loss and the duration.

Diagnosing Hearing Loss

It is essential that you get a proper diagnosis if you are living with a hearing loss type. It's important to detect hearing loss earlier so that you stand a better chance of treating it faster. Sometimes, it could be reversible, and you can regain perfect hearing.

Your doctor may perform some tests to figure out the kind of loss you may have. Some of them include the following:

  • A physical exam may be conducted to check your ear for any earwax blockage, infection, or bone structural deformity. 
  • General screening tests involve covering one ear first before the other to check how well you hear words and different volumes.
  • Tuning fork test (Rinne and Weber test) uses a two-pronged metal to test your hearing. After it is struck and begins to vibrate, your doctor may place it at the bone behind the ear for the vibration to pinpoint where the hearing loss is exactly.
  • Audiometer tests where you wear headphones and listen to sounds in your ear. An audiologist is the best provider option in this case because they are trained to measure the sound you hear.

Detecting Hearing Loss Earlier

It's important to detect hearing loss early. Treating hearing loss as soon as possible can help prevent future damage to your hearing.

Hearing Test

Hearing tests are specific tests carried out by audiologists to accurately diagnose the kind of hearing loss a person may be experiencing.

A hearing test is important for determining the exact type of loss you are experiencing and will go a long way in finding the right solution and treatment plan for you.

Treatment

The treatment you may get varies and relies on the type of hearing loss. If sudden hearing loss is treated with urgency, your chance of regaining your hearing is higher. Treatments include:

  • Surgery could reverse hearing loss by otosclerosis (hearing loss due to bone growth in the ossicles of the middle ear), scar tissue, or infection. 
  • If it is a minor ear infection, antibiotics can resolve it.
  • Changing certain prescriptions could help if you notice reactions to the one you have been given. However, you should talk to your doctor before switching drugs. 
  • In cases of an earwax buildup, your doctor may use suction to clear your ear canal.
  • A hearing aid is helpful especially in people with permanent hearing loss. They are worn in your ear or behind it to help you hear better.
  • Some devices like phone amplifiers can help to read out what is on your phone to make it easier to speak.
  • Cochlear implants, which are mainly for young kids, could be used in older people with severe cases.

When to Seek Medical Attention

If you notice you don’t hear as well as you used to, then now is the best time to talk to your healthcare provider. Even though it may not be easy to explain what you are feeling, it’s the best way to get the problem addressed. Discuss the following with your healthcare provider:

  • Discuss the symptoms you have and when they appear
  • Ask them how these symptoms can be addressed or improved
  • Talk about ways to protect your hearing from further hearing loss

Summary

Hearing loss is a condition that prevents people from hearing well in one or both ears. Things like illness, certain medications, exposure to noise for a long time, genetics, accidents, and aging could cause hearing loss.

The three major types of hearing loss are conductive, sensorineural, and mixed hearing loss with sensorineural being the most common. Sometimes hearing loss can be treated by the use of medications or surgery. However, this depends on the cause and type of hearing loss.

In severe cases, hearing loss may be managed with hearing aids or cochlear implants.

A Word From Verywell

Hearing loss can affect how you relate with people and dampen your feelings in general. If you are experiencing hearing loss, feelings of depression or loneliness may occur due to difficulty talking to others and engaging in everyday life. Letting your healthcare provider know what you're going through early on can help you manage the discomfort or, even better, restore your hearing. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is hearing loss considered a disability?

    According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), hearing loss or deafness is a disability.

  • How can you tell if hearing loss is permanent or temporary?

    Temporary hearing loss happens for a brief period. Things like earwax buildup, infections, and tinnitus can cause temporary hearing loss. It is mostly reversible after treatment.

    Permanent hearing loss is irreversible and progresses over time. Aging, sensorineural hearing loss and ototoxicity (ear poisoning due to drugs) may be responsible.

  • Can you prevent hearing loss?

    According to the NHS, hearing loss cannot always be avoided. Things like aging, which is a cause of hearing loss, are unavoidable. But hearing loss caused by listening to loud sounds for a long time can be totally avoided.

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11 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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