There are different types and varying degrees of hearing loss. It can be partial or total, sudden or gradual, temporary or permanent, and it can affect one ear or both. While some people lose their hearing for a very short period of time as a result of an accident, medical illness or treatment, for others it is a progressive process that takes many years. Some illnesses, such as diabetes, hypertension, or Meniere's disease, can contribute to the progressive loss of hearing.
Hearing loss is classified according to which part of the auditory, or hearing system, is affected. The outer ear consists of the visible ear and ear canal. The middle ear is an air-filled cavity containing three small bones. The middle ear is separated from the ear canal by the eardrum.
There are three main types of hearing loss:
Permanent hearing loss occurs when inner ear nerves become damaged and do not properly transmit their signals to the brain. Those who suffer from this condition may complain that people seem to mumble or that they hear, but do not understand, what is being said. The aging process is a very common cause of sensorineural hearing loss. As we get older, the inner ear nerves and sensory cells gradually die. The condition is not often medically or surgically treatable. In most cases, the symptoms can be significantly minimized with hearing aids.
Although hearing loss is very common among adults, particularly those over age 65, the condition is often under diagnosed in older people. Hearing loss can greatly impact a person's quality of life. Therefore, if hearing loss is suspected, it is important that the advice of a doctor specializing in diseases and conditions of the ear, known as an otologist, otolaryngologist, or ear, nose and throat doctor, is sought in order to make a definite medical diagnosis. The ear specialist also will work in close cooperation with audiologists, specialists in hearing disorders.
Several options are available for hearing loss, ranging from medical treatment to listening devices, such as hearing aids. Treatment depends of the cause and severity of hearing loss. For age-related hearing loss, there is no cure, but hearing aids and other listening devices help treat the problem and improve quality of life.
Medical treatment, including medications and surgery, is recommended for many types of hearing problems, particularly conductive hearing loss. However, even if medical treatment is not necessary for your type of hearing loss, we highly recommend a visit to an audiologist for both a definite diagnosis of the type of hearing loss and treatment advice.
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.