Health Illustrated Encyclopedia

Hearing loss


Hearing loss is the total or partial inability to hear sound in one or both ears.

See also: Hearing loss of aging   

Alternative Names

Decreased hearing; Deafness; Loss of hearing


Minor decreases in hearing are frequent after age 20. Hearing problems usually come on gradually, and rarely end in complete deafness.

There are many causes of hearing loss. They can be divided into two main categories:

  • Conductive hearing loss (CHL) occurs because of some mechanical problem in the external or middle ear. The three tiny bones of the ear (ossicles) may fail to conduct sound to the cochlea, or the eardrum may fail to vibrate in response to sound. Fluid in the middle ear can cause CHL.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) results from a dysfunction of the inner ear. It most often occurs when the tiny hair cells (nerve endings) that transmit sound through the ear are injured. This type of hearing loss is sometimes called "nerve damage," although this is not accurate.

CHL is often reversible -- SNHL is not. People who have both forms of hearing loss are said to have mixed hearing loss.

Screening for hearing loss is now recommended for all newborns. In children, hearing problems may cause speech to develop slowly.

Ear infections are the most common cause of temporary hearing loss in children. Fluid may linger in the ear following an ear infection. Although this fluid can go unnoticed, it can cause significant hearing problems in children. Any fluid that stays longer than 8 - 12 weeks is cause for concern.

Preventing hearing loss is more effective than treating it after "the damage is done."






  • Acoustic trauma such as from explosions, fireworks, gunfire, rock concerts, and earphones
  • Barotrauma (differences in pressure)
  • Skull fracture (temporal bone)
  • Traumatic perforation of the eardrum


  • Aminoglycoside antibiotics
  • Aspirin
  • Chloroquine
  • Ethacrynic acid - oral
  • Quinidine



  • Any occupation with exposure to loud noises on a continuous day-to-day basis can result in hearing loss due to nerve end damage. Increased attention to conditions in the work environment has markedly decreased the likelihood of work-related hearing loss. See occupational hearing loss.


Temporary hearing loss can be caused by:

Home Care

Wax build-up can frequently be flushed out of the ear (gently) with ear syringes (available in drug stores) and warm water. Wax softeners (like Cerumenex) may be needed if the wax is hard and impacted.

Care should be taken when removing foreign bodies. Unless it is easy to get to, have your health care provider remove the object. Don't use sharp instruments to remove foreign bodies.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if:

  • Hearing problems adversely affect lifestyle
  • Hearing problems are persistent and unexplained
  • Hearing problems go along with other symptoms such as ear pain

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

The health care provider will take your medical history and do a physical examination.

Medical history questions documenting hearing loss in detail may include:

  • Is the hearing loss in both ears or one ear?
  • Is the hearing loss mild or severe?
  • Is all of the hearing lost (inability to hear any sound)?
  • Is there decreased hearing acuity (do words sound garbled)?
  • Is there decreased ability to understand speech?
  • Is there decreased ability to locate the source of a sound?
  • How long has the hearing loss been present?
  • Did it occur before age 30?
  • What other symptoms are also present?
  • Is there tinnitus (ringing or other sounds)?
  • Is there ear pain?
  • Is there dizziness or vertigo?

The physical examination will include a detailed examination of the ears.

Diagnostic tests that may be performed include:

A hearing aid or cochlear implant may be provided to improve hearing.


Baloh RW. Hearing and Equilibrium. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, PA : Saunders Elsevier; 2007: chap 454.

Wrightson AS. Universal newborn hearing screening. Am Fam Physician. 2007; 75(9):1349.

Provided by

Review Date: 7/15/2008
Reviewed By: Alan Lipkin, MD, Otolargyngologist, private practice, Denver, CO. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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