Hearing loss is very common. Roughly 15% of the U.S. population—tens of millions of people—have some form of hearing loss. Early detection and treatment can prevent other health problems from occurring in the future. If you think you might have hearing loss, it’s best to get your hearing tested and take steps to prevent further loss.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
- The 3 most common types of hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Conductive hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss
- Getting help with hearing loss
Types of Hearing Loss
There are 3 main types of hearing loss:
- Sensorineural: This is the most common type of hearing loss. It occurs from damage to hair cells in the inner ear (cochlea) or auditory nerve (connects the ear to the brain). Sensorineural hearing loss is often permanent.
- Conductive: This occurs when there is a blockage in the middle or outer ear, such as an ear infection, earwax, or fluid in the ear. Conductive hearing loss is often temporary, reversible, and treatable with medication or surgery.
- Mixed: This is a combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. You may need treatments for both types of hearing loss.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL, often called “nerve hearing loss”) appears in approximately 66,000 people each year in the U.S. It stems from damage to the hair cells (transmit sound in the inner ear), auditory nerve (connects the ear to the brain), or both.
- You can experience SNHL in one ear (unilateral) or both ears (bilateral).
- It can involve high, middle, low, or all three sound pitch levels.
- SNHL has many causes, including aging, excessive noise, diseases, viral infections, genetics, ototoxic medications, and more.
- This type of hearing loss is usually permanent.
- Treatment is usually hearing aids.
Types of Sensorineural Hearing Loss
- Presbycusis (age-related hearing loss): Trouble hearing high-frequency sounds as a result of aging. Over time, it may be hard to hear low and middle frequencies. Age-related hearing loss primarily originates in the inner ear, but can also be from changes in the middle ear and nerve pathways.
- Noise-induced hearing loss: Trouble hearing high-frequency sounds as a result of damage to the tiny hair cells from loud noise. It can be a one-time exposure to very loud noise, such as a firework blast close to your ear, but more often, develops over time from repeated exposure to loud noise, like mowing the lawn or attending concerts.
- High-frequency hearing loss: Trouble hearing high-pitched sounds that fall between 2000 to 8000 Hertz (e.g., electronic beeps, children’s voices). This hearing loss results from damaged hair cells in the inner ear.
- Auditory neuropathy: The inner ear can detect sound, but the signal doesn’t reach the brain. You can get this hearing loss in adulthood, but it’s more common in children. Diagnosing auditory neuropathy usually requires a combination of hearing evaluations, particularly for children.
Conductive Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss involves a blockage in the middle or outer ear. Unlike sensorineural hearing loss, the nerves and hair cells might be healthy, but the sound has difficulty reaching them.
- It’s most common to experience this loss in one ear (unilateral), but it’s possible to have it in both ears (bilateral) as well.
- It usually involves high, middle, and low sound pitch levels.
- Conductive hearing loss has many causes, including ear wax build-up, fluid from a cold or ear infection, water in the ear, foreign objects in the ear, injured middle ear bones, and more.
- This type of hearing loss is often temporary, reversible, and treatable.
- Treatment could be as simple as taking medication or involve a more complex procedure like surgery. If hearing loss is permanent, then hearing aids may help.
Types of Conductive Hearing Loss
- Clogged ears: Caused by earwax blockages, sinus infections/allergies, middle ear infection, altitude changes, and more. You probably know how clogged ears feel if you’ve ever flown in a plane or driven in the mountains. Hearing is usually muffled and you may experience pain or pressure in the ear.
- Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa): The ear does a pretty good job of draining itself, but sometimes water settles there. The longer it sits in your ear, the more likely you’ll develop an ear infection called otitis externa (“swimmer’s ear”). Like a clogged ear, water in the ear can cause muffled hearing and pain or pressure in the ear.
- Middle ear fluid or infection (otitis media): The middle ear normally contains air, but it can become inflamed and fluid filled, called otitis media. This is common in children and is often painful and can cause fever.
Mixed Hearing Loss
It’s possible to have a combination of sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. This means that there may be both damage in the outer or middle ear and in the inner ear. An example would be if you have a hearing loss from aging, and you also have fluid in your middle ear. The two together might make your hearing worse than it would be with only one issue.
How to get help
Many types of hearing loss affect millions of people, but the condition often goes untreated. In fact, only 1 in 4 adults who could benefit from hearing aids have used them. If you think you or a loved one has hearing loss, take a hearing test and pursue the hearing solutions you need. You can check your hearing at a local hearing clinic or from the comfort of your home. Simply take the MDHearing free online hearing test and receive your results immediately.
If you need hearing aids, MDHearing offers a range of affordable, FDA-registered OTC hearing aids. We offer a 45-day risk-free trial so you can try them on in your daily life and make sure our solutions work for your loss. Our U.S.-based licensed hearing professionals are always here to help.