An introduction to hearing loss

Symptoms of hearing loss

It’s not always obvious when someone is challenged by hearing loss, especially because some people are reluctant to accept they have a hearing problem as they get older.

If you can spot the signs of hearing loss in a loved one and can step in to get them the help they need it could make a serious difference to their quality of life. The signs to look out for include:

• Sounds become muffled or dampened. This may be hard for you to spot in others unless they mention it themselves.
• Difficulty following a conversation, especially when there’s background noise or more than one person speaking at once. While you might not know what someone else is hearing you should be able to deduce from what they say back whether they can hear you properly.
• Talking to people or social situations are avoided, because they can be stressful, tiring or embarrassing so if you notice that someone who is usually quite chatty becomes more reserved it could be a sign of hearing loss.
• The volume of the television, radio, or other device is raised to a higher level than usual in order to hear things clearly.

If you notice these symptoms in someone you should encourage them to have a hearing test. If they are reluctant you should stress that hearing loss is not just something that affects old people and that millions of people in the UK currently wear a hearing aid. You should also explain about the positive outcomes a hearing test may bring: being able to talk easily with family and friends for example.

Understanding hearing loss

The ear is a complex organ with different parts each doing an important job to help us hear.

The outer ear funnels sound waves into the ear canal where it causes the eardrum to vibrate. These vibrations are amplified through the three smallest bones in the body, the hammer, anvil and stirrup, into the inner ear.

In the cochlea around 15,000 microscopic sensory hair cells convert these sound vibrations into electrical signals (nerve impulses). These travel to the brain, where they are converted into sounds. Problems in the cochlea are the most common causes of hearing loss. has produced an inforgraphic that visually demonstrates the truth about hearing loss click here for the full version.

Types of hearing loss

The majority of hearing loss cases are caused by exposure to loud noise and general aging. Other types of hearing loss may be caused by neurological disorders, problems at birth, illnesses such as diabetes and even lifestyle factors such as smoking.

Age-related hearing loss
This can start to become noticeable during our 30s and 40s, but we actually begin to lose some of our hearing from as young as 18. This is because sensitive hairs inside the cochlea, which sends electrical signals when they move in response to sound vibrations, slowly get damaged and eventually die.

The loss of these hair cells makes it difficult for the ear to pick up high-frequency sounds (such as children’s voices) or certain consonant sounds, which is why following conversation while there is background noise very difficult.

Noise-induced hearing loss

Acoustic trauma is caused by exposure to loud noise – just how loud the noise is and the length of exposure is important in determining how much damage is done to the ear. The loud noise causes part of the cochlea to become inflamed, which stops some electrical signals successfully reach the brain.
In mild cases the damage is usually reversible

While there are laws in place to protect people from loud noises at work, some people may still not be given the necessary personal protective equipment. While loud music is commonly known to cause noise-induced hearing loss people forget that common household objects like a hair dryer or lawn mower can also contribute to hearing loss.

Treatments available

When hearing loss is reversible the type of treatment needed will depend on what has caused the hearing loss.

While some people will benefit from cochlea implants if they have serious sensorineural hearing loss, most people simply need a hearing aid. This is an electrical device made up of four parts: a microphone/receiver, amplifier, loudspeaker and battery.

Hearing aids can be analogue or digital . Analogue signals simply translate sound into an electrical signal, which it amplifies for the ear. Digital hearing aids are more technologically complex and better equipped to distinguish between different types of sounds and determine which of those sounds needs amplifying.

Modern digital hearing aids are not only discreet and often practically invisible, they are also able to distinguish between background noise (e.g. traffic) and foreground noise (e.g. conversation).

There are many types of hearing aid and the one that someone will need depends on the extent of their hearing loss and their lifestyle. Only a qualified hearing aid audiologist will be able to recommend what type of hearing aid would be best for your hearing loss.

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