Hearing loss is a very common condition. One in six Australians has a hearing loss and this proportion is expected to increase to one in four by 2050 as the percentage of the population aged over 60 increases.
Timing of hearing loss
A hearing loss that is present at birth or soon after is referred to as being a congenital hearing loss. Whereas a hearing loss that occurs later in life is referred to as an acquired hearing loss.
A hearing loss that occurs before a child develops any speech and language skills is referred to as being prelingual. Whereas a hearing loss that occurs after a child develops some speech and language skills is known as being postlingual.
Types of hearing loss
Hearing loss can be categorised into several types based on the location of the damage in the auditory system and the cause of the hearing loss. The main types of hearing loss are:
Conductive hearing loss
This type of hearing loss occurs when there is a problem with the transmission of sound waves from the outer or middle ear to the inner ear. It can be caused by conditions such as earwax buildup, middle ear infections (otitis media), fluid in the middle ear (effusion), perforation of the eardrum, or problems with the ossicles (the three bones in the middle ear). Conductive hearing loss can often be treated medically or surgically.
Sensori-neural hearing loss (SNHL)
Sensori-neural hearing loss occurs due to damage to the inner ear (cochlea) or the auditory nerve pathways. It is the most common type of permanent hearing loss and is often caused by aging (presbycusis), exposure to loud noise (noise-induced hearing loss), ototoxic medications, genetic factors, or certain diseases.
For those with this type of hearing loss, higher-pitched tones may sound muffled. It will be difficult to pick out words against background noise, such as in a loud café or train station. Sensori-neural hearing loss is typically not reversible, but it can often be managed with modern hearing aids or cochlear implants.
Mixed hearing loss
Mixed hearing loss is a combination of conductive and sensori-neural hearing loss. This means that there is a problem with the transmission of sound waves through the outer or middle ear, as well as damage to the inner ear or auditory nerve. Treatment for mixed hearing loss depends on the specific causes and may involve a combination of medical, surgical, and rehabilitative interventions.
Auditory processing disorders (APDs)
APDs are not technically a type of hearing loss, but rather a difficulty in processing auditory information in the brain. People with APDs may have normal hearing sensitivity but struggle to understand speech, especially in noisy environments. APDs can be caused by problems with the way the brain processes auditory information and can be diagnosed through specialised testing.
Functional hearing loss
Functional hearing loss, also known as non-organic or psychogenic hearing loss, refers to hearing loss that is not caused by any physical damage to the auditory system but rather by psychological or emotional factors. It is important to distinguish functional hearing loss from other types of hearing loss through comprehensive testing and evaluation by an audiologist or other healthcare professional.
Causes of hearing loss
Age-related hearing loss (presbycusis)
This is a common type of sensorineural hearing loss that occurs as a result of the natural aging process. It typically affects both ears and is often gradual.
Noise-induced hearing loss
Prolonged exposure to loud noises, such as those from machinery, music, or firearms, can damage the hair cells in the inner ear, leading to hearing loss. This type of hearing loss can be preventable by using ear protection in loud environments.
Some medications, such as certain antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs, and high doses of aspirin, can damage the inner ear and cause hearing loss. This type of hearing loss can be temporary or permanent, depending on the medication and dosage.
Head trauma or injury to the ear can damage the auditory system and result in hearing loss. This can include fractures of the skull or temporal bone, as well as damage to the middle or inner ear structures.
Diseases and infections
Certain diseases and infections, such as meningitis, mumps, measles, and auto-immune disorders, can lead to hearing loss by causing damage to the structures of the ear.
This is a disorder of the inner ear that can cause episodes of vertigo, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and fluctuating hearing loss.
This is a condition where abnormal bone growth in the middle ear interferes with the movement of the ossicles, leading to conductive hearing loss.
Tumours, both benign and malignant, can grow in the ear or the auditory nerve and cause hearing loss by pressing on the structures involved in hearing.
Genetic factors can contribute to hearing loss, and certain genetic conditions can predispose individuals to hearing loss from birth or an early age.
Issues during pregnancy and childbirth
Some babies are born with a hearing loss due to the expectant mother contracting an infection called cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection. CMV is a common virus that belongs to the herpesvirus family, which also includes cold sores. If a woman becomes infected with CMV for the first time during pregnancy or if she has a reactivation of a previous CMV infection, there is a risk that the virus can be transmitted to the foetus.
Congenital CMV infection can cause a range of health problems in newborns, including hearing loss, developmental disabilities, vision problems, and other complications. Hearing loss is one of the most common long-term effects of congenital CMV infection, and it can be present at birth or develop later in childhood.
Preventing CMV infection during pregnancy is challenging because the virus is widespread in the population and is typically asymptomatic in healthy individuals. However, pregnant women can reduce their risk of CMV infection by practicing good hygiene, such as frequent handwashing (especially after contact with young children’s saliva or urine) and avoiding close contact with individuals who have active CMV infections.
If a pregnant woman is at risk of CMV infection or experiences symptoms of CMV infection during pregnancy, it is important for her to consult with her healthcare provider for guidance on testing and management. Early detection and intervention can help reduce the risk of complications, including hearing loss, in newborns affected by congenital CMV infection. The same advice applies for rubella (German measles).
Benefits of identifying a hearing loss early
Detect a progressive hearing loss
You will most likely notice if your hearing suddenly deteriorates. However, when hearing gradually declines over a period of time, it can be difficult to tell whether hearing difficulties are due to external factors, such as the way people speak (mumbling), or whether in fact you have a hearing loss.
Start a conversation with your family and friends about the impact of your hearing loss
Letting people know you have trouble hearing reduces the likelihood of others mistaking your hearing loss for unsociability or ignorance. There is a tendency for others to attribute certain behaviours associated with hearing loss, such as a failure to respond when spoken to, to aloofness or simple-mindedness.
Promptly seek help from an Audiologist and get your life back
At Hearingworks, Kew we can help you improve your hearing and communication abilities, enabling you to strengthen your relationships by making you a better listener. People put off getting hearing aids for an average of 7 years; that’s 7 years of not living your life to the full.