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Hearing loss and deafness

Hearing loss comes in many forms. It can range from a mild loss, in which you miss certain high-pitched sounds, to total hearing loss, or deafness. Hearing loss is one of the most common conditions affecting older adults. But it can affect people of all ages.

There are two main types of hearing loss:

  • One happens when your inner ear or auditory nerve is damaged. The inner ear is the part of your ear that creates nerve signals in response to sound waves. The auditory nerve then carries these signals from your inner ear to your brain. Hearing loss due to inner ear or auditory nerve damage is permanent.
  • The other type of hearing loss happens when sound waves cannot reach your inner ear. This problem can be caused by earwax buildup, fluid buildup due to an ear infection, or a hole in your eardrum. Your eardrum is the sheet of tissue at the end of your ear canal that vibrates in response to sound waves.

Causes of hearing loss and deafness include:

  • Long-term exposure to loud noise
  • Illness or infection
  • Certain medicines
  • A severe blow to the head
  • Family history

People with untreated hearing loss can have a hard time communicating. They cannot enjoy the company of friends and family. They may not be able to understand a doctor's advice, respond to warnings, or hear doorbells and alarms. People with untreated hearing loss may become isolated and depressed.

If you have trouble hearing, you can get help. Possible treatments include hearing aids, certain medicines, or surgery. Assistive technologies and special training also help people with hearing loss communicate and live independently. For instance, alerting devices, such as a flashing light or a vibration can let a person with hearing loss know that the phone is ringing or if someone is at the door. Signing and cued speech are visual (rather than spoken) ways of communicating. American Sign Language is said to be the fourth most commonly used language in the United States.

If you think that you have hearing loss, see your doctor. If you ignore it, it can get worse.

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Content last updated: September 22, 2009.

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