Types of Hearing Loss: Even Silence Has a Source

The roots of hearing loss are many, so doctors and hearing health professionals take a lot of factors into account when treating it. To give you an idea of how multifaceted hearing loss can be, we’ve put together a brief overview of the most common types:


Sensorineural Hearing Loss: Deep in the inner ear, sits an organ called the cochlea, which contains thousands of delicate hair cells that pick up sound vibrations and transfer them to auditory nerve fibers, which transmit that information to the brain. Over-exposing oneself to loud noises can harm those hair cells and/or nerves, causing hearing loss. Such hearing loss tends to be first noticed in the higher frequencies of sound. If the noise exposure is not stopped or dealt with through hearing protection, permanent high-frequency hearing loss can result.

Conductive Hearing Loss: This aptly named type of hearing loss occurs when something prevents sound from getting to the inner ear. Middle-ear infections (otitis media) can be accompanied by fluid build-ups that muffle incoming sound. Sound can also be blocked by ear canal infections (otitis externa), such as swimmer’s ear, which cause irritation and swelling of the ear canal. Conductive Hearing Loss can, in most cases, be gotten rid of by treating whatever infection has set in or by clearing a blockage through surgery.

Mixed Hearing Loss: This term is used to describe situations in which sensorineural and conductive hearing loss are present at the same time. For instance, a situation in which damage to hair cells and/or nerves is combined with a problem affecting the small, sound-conducting bones (ossicles) of the middle ear. Improvement in cases of mixed hearing loss tends to come from treatment or surgery focused on the conductive aspect of the condition. The effect of sensorineural damage in such cases is often permanent.

Unilateral Hearing Loss: This is the more official sounding term that describes what sufferers sometimes call “my bad ear.” A person can be born with it, it can develop gradually over several days and it can even happen suddenly. Identifying and treating unilateral hearing loss is particularly important among children, whose speech/language development and ability to learn effectively can be heavily burdened when hearing is difficult.

Sudden Hearing Loss: Usually affecting just one ear, sudden hearing loss describes a type of hearing decrease that develops rapidly over the course of about 72 hours. There are numerous things that can trigger it, but knowing the source in this case isn’t as urgent as prompt treatment. Some 85 percent seeking treatment recover some of their hearing; getting treated right away increases the likelihood of full recovery.

High-Frequency Hearing Loss: People experiencing high-frequency hearing loss tend to find themselves hearing vowels but missing consonants that help them distinguish individual words. It comes on very gradually, so it’s a difficult diagnosis. One early sign to watch out for is trouble hearing sounds in higher octaves, such as the voices of women and small children, and nature sounds, like the chirping of birds. Trouble carrying on conversations in groups and amid background noise is another indicator that a hearing exam may be in order.

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