Hearing loss

Hearing loss is a common problem that often develops with age or is caused by repeated exposure to loud noises.

Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) estimates that there are more than 10 million (about 1 in 6) people in the UK with some degree of hearing impairment or deafness.

Hearing loss can occur suddenly, but usually develops gradually.

When to get medical advice

Speak to your GP practice if:

You or your child are:

  • having problems with your hearing
  • lose your hearing suddenly, in one or both ears

Your GP can check for any problems and may refer you to an audiologist (hearing specialist) or an ENT specialist for further tests.

Hearing tests are also available on the high street, but you may have to pay for these.

Signs of hearing loss

Early signs of hearing loss can include:

  • difficulty hearing other people clearly and misunderstanding what they say, especially in group situations
  • asking people to repeat themselves
  • listening to music or watching television with the volume higher than other people need
  • difficulty hearing the telephone or doorbell
  • finding it difficult to tell which direction noise is coming from
  • regularly feeling tired or stressed from having to concentrate while listening

If you also hear a ringing, buzzing or hissing sound in your ears, this could be a sign of tinnitus, which is often associated with hearing loss.

Signs in babies

You should consider seeing your GP if you notice that your baby or toddler:

  • isn’t startled by loud noises
  • doesn’t turn towards the source of a sound when under 4 months old
  • doesn’t say single words by the time they’re 1 year old
  • notices you when they see you, but not when you call their name
  • hears some sounds but not others

Signs in children

You should consider seeing your GP if you notice that your child:

  • is slow to learn to talk, or they’re not clear when they speak
  • often asks you to repeat yourself or responds inappropriately to a question
  • doesn’t reply when you call them
  • often talks very loudly
  • often turns up the volume of the television so it’s very loud
  • watches other people to copy instructions, because they haven’t heard

What causes hearing loss?

Hearing loss is the result of sound signals not reaching the brain. There are 2 main types of hearing loss, depending on where the problem lies:

  • sensorineural hearing loss – caused by damage to the sensitive hair cells inside the inner ear or damage to the auditory nerve, which can happen naturally with age or as a result of injury
  • conductive hearing loss – when sounds are unable to pass from your outer ear to your inner ear, often because of a blockage such as earwax, glue ear or a build-up of fluid from an ear infection, perforated ear drum or disorder of the hearing bones

It’s also possible to have both these types of hearing loss. This is known as mixed hearing loss.

Some people are born with hearing loss, but most cases develop as you get older.

Treatment for hearing loss

The way hearing loss is treated depends on the cause and how severe it is.

In cases of sensorineural (nerve) hearing loss, there are several options that may help to improve a person’s ability to hear and communicate. These include:

  • digital hearing aids – which are available through the NHS
  • bone anchored implants – suitable for people who are unable to use hearing aids and for some levels of sensorineural hearing loss
  • middle ear implants – suitable for some people who are unable to use hearing aids
  • cochlear implants – for people who find hearing aids aren’t powerful enough
  • lip reading and/or sign language – such as British Sign Language (BSL)

Conductive hearing loss is sometimes temporary and can be treated with medication or minor surgery, if necessary. However, more major surgery may be required to fix the ear drum or hearing bones.

How to prevent hearing loss

It isn’t always possible to prevent hearing loss if you have an underlying condition that causes you to lose your hearing.

However, there are several things you can do to reduce the risk of hearing loss from long-term exposure to loud noise.

It’s possible to reduce your risk of noise-induced hearing loss (hearing loss from loud noise).

Do

  • use headphones that block out more outside noise, rather than turning up the volume
  • use ear protection equipment such as ear muffs or ear plugs if you work in a noisy environment, such as a pub, nightclub, a garage workshop or on a building site – your employer should provide these
  • use ear-protection equipment at loud concerts and at other events where there are high noise levels, such as motor races
  • be aware of the symptoms of common causes of hearing loss, such as ear infections (otitis media) and Ménière’s disease
  • speak to your GP practice if you or your child are experiencing hearing problems

Don’t

  • do not have your television, radio or music on too loud
  • do not insert objects into your ears or your children’s ears – this includes fingers, cotton buds, cotton wool and tissue

You should also speak to your GP practice if you have signs of an ear infection, such as flu-like symptoms, severe earache, discharge or hearing loss.


Last updated:
29 May 2024