Hearing Loss: When To See A Specialist

We are all familiar with the idea that as you age, your hearing will gradually deteriorate. This type of hearing loss is called Presbycusis and is very common. 

Hearing loss can be described and identified of three types:

  • Conductive (involves outer or middle ear)
  • Sensorineural (involves inner ear)
  • Mixed (combination of the two)

Along with ageing, if you are in constant exposure to loud noises this can also contribute to hearing loss. Your body produces an excessive amount of earwax which can temporarily reduce how well your ears conduct sounds.

Most types of hearing loss can’t be reversed however, with a specialist, you will be able to take steps to improve your hearing.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Hearing Loss?

Here are some indicators of hearing loss and when we would advise you visit us:

  • Muffling of speech and other sounds
  • Difficulty understanding words, especially against background noise or in a crowd
  • Trouble hearing consonants
  • Frequently asking others to speak more slowly, clearly and loudly
  • Needing to turn up the volume of the television or radio
  • Withdrawal from conversations
  • Avoidance of some social settings

How Does Hearing Loss Occur?

Causes of hearing loss include:

  • Damage to the inner ear. It is common that exposure to loud noises, along with general ageing may cause damage to the hairs or nerve cells in the cochlea that send sound signals to the brain. When these hairs or nerve cells are damaged or missing, electrical signals aren’t transmitted as efficiently, and hearing loss will occur.

With this type of hearing loss you will find that higher pitched tones may become muffled to you, thus making it more difficult for you to pick out words against background noise.

  • Gradual buildup of earwax. Earwax can block the ear canal and prevent conduction of sound waves. Earwax removal can help restore your hearing.
  • Ear Infection and Abnormal Bone Growths or Tumours. In the outer or middle ear, any of these can cause hearing loss.
  • Ruptured eardrum (tympanic membrane perforation). Loud blasts of noise, sudden changes in pressure, poking your eardrum with an object and infection can cause your eardrum to rupture and affect your hearing.

Comparing Loudness of Common Sounds

The chart below lists common sounds and their decibel levels. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) safe noise level is 70 decibels. The louder the noise, the less time it takes to cause permanent hearing damage.

What Are the Complications With Hearing Loss?

Hearing loss can have a significant effect on your quality of life. Older adults with hearing loss may report feelings of depression. Because hearing loss can make conversation difficult, some people experience feelings of isolation. Hearing loss is also associated with cognitive impairment and decline.

The mechanism of interaction between hearing loss, cognitive impairment, depression and isolation is being actively studied. Initial research suggests that treating hearing loss can have a positive effect on cognitive performance, especially memory.

How Do I Prevent Hearing Loss?

The following steps can help you prevent noise-induced hearing loss and avoid worsening of age-related hearing loss:

  • Protect Your Ears. Limiting the duration and intensity of your exposure to noise is the best protection. In the workplace, plastic earplugs or glycerin-filled earmuffs can help protect your ears from damaging noise.
  • Have your Hearing Tested. Consider regular hearing tests if you work in a noisy environment. If you’ve lost some hearing, you can take steps to prevent further loss.
  • Avoid Recreational Risks. Activities such as riding a snowmobile, hunting, using power tools or listening to rock concerts can damage your hearing over time. Wearing hearing protectors or taking breaks from the noise can protect your ears. Turning down the music volume is helpful too.

How To Diagnose A Hearing Problem?

Tests to diagnose hearing loss may include:

  • Physical Exam. Your doctor will look in your ear for possible causes of your hearing loss, such as earwax or inflammation from an infection. Your doctor will also look for any structural causes of your hearing problems.
  • General Screening Tests. Your doctor may use the whisper test, asking you to cover one ear at a time to see how well you hear words spoken at various volumes and how you respond to other sounds. Its accuracy can be limited.
  • App-Based Hearing Tests. Mobile apps are available that you can use by yourself on your tablet to screen for moderate hearing loss.
  • Tuning Fork Tests. Tuning forks are two-pronged, metal instruments that produce sounds when struck. Simple tests with tuning forks can help your doctor detect hearing loss. This evaluation may also reveal where in your ear the damage has occurred.
  • Audiometer Tests. During these more-thorough tests conducted by an audiologist, you wear earphones and hear sounds and words directed to each ear. Each tone is repeated at faint levels to find the quietest sound you can hear.

Am I At Risk Of Hearing Loss?

Factors that may damage or lead to loss of the hairs and nerve cells in your inner ear include:

  • Ageing. Degeneration of inner ear structures occurs over time.
  • Loud Noise. Exposure to loud sounds can damage the cells of your inner ear. Damage can occur with long-term exposure to loud noises, or from a short blast of noise, such as from a gunshot.
  • Heredity. Your genetic makeup may make you more susceptible to ear damage from sound or deterioration from aging.
  • Occupational Noises. Jobs where loud noise is a regular part of the working environment, such as farming, construction or factory work, can lead to damage inside your ear.
  • Recreational Noises. Exposure to explosive noises, such as from firearms and jet engines, can cause immediate, permanent hearing loss. Other recreational activities with dangerously high noise levels include snowmobiling, motorcycling, carpentry or listening to loud music.
  • Some Medications. Drugs such as the antibiotic gentamicin, sildenafil (Viagra) and certain chemotherapy drugs, can damage the inner ear. Temporary effects on your hearing — ringing in the ear (tinnitus) or hearing loss — can occur if you take very high doses of aspirin, other pain relievers, antimalarial drugs or loop diuretics.
  • Some Illnesses. Diseases or illnesses that result in high fever, such as meningitis, may damage the cochlea.

When Should I see a Specialist?

If you have a sudden loss of hearing, particularly in one ear, you should seek immediate medical attention.

You should contact us if difficulty hearing is interfering with your daily life. It is important to pick up on age-related hearing loss because it occurs gradually, so you may not notice it at first.

Can You Treat Hearing Loss?

If you have hearing problems, help is available. Treatment depends on the cause and severity of your hearing loss.

Options include:

  • Removing Wax Blockage. Earwax blockage is a reversible cause of hearing loss. Your doctor may remove earwax using suction or a small tool with a loop on the end.
  • Surgical Procedures. Some types of hearing loss can be treated with surgery, including abnormalities of the eardrum or bones of hearing (ossicles). If you’ve had repeated infections with persistent fluid, your doctor may insert small tubes that help your ears drain.
  • Hearing Aids. If your hearing loss is due to damage to your inner ear, a hearing aid can be helpful. An audiologist can discuss with you the potential benefits of a hearing aid and fit you with a device. Open fit aids are currently the most popular, due to fit and features offered.
  • Cochlear Implants. If you have more severe hearing loss and gain limited benefit from conventional hearing aids, then a cochlear implant may be an option. Unlike a hearing aid that amplifies sound and directs it into your ear canal, a cochlear implant bypasses damaged or non working parts of your inner ear and directly stimulates the hearing nerve. An audiologist, along with a medical doctor who specialises in disorders of the ears, nose and throat (ENT), can discuss the risks and benefits.

How To Cope With Hearing Loss & Finding Support

The following tips will help you in situations where you may find it difficult to hear properly.

  • Friends & Family. Let your friends and family know you have some issues with hearing loss and that it has started to affect your daily life.
  • Prepare Yourself In Conversations. If you are struggling to hear those you are having a conversation with, put yourself in a comfortable position where you can not only hear the person, but you can lip-read for a stronger chance of understanding them.
  • Have Conversations with Less Distractions. If you struggle to hear with background noise, such as a television, remove yourself from those areas and try having a discussion in a quieter place.
  • Ask others to Speak Clearly, Not Loudly. Most people will be helpful if they know you’re having trouble hearing them.
  • Try to have the other person’s attention before speaking. Avoid trying to converse with someone in a different room.
  • Choose Quiet Settings. In public, choose a place to talk that’s away from noisy areas.
  • Consider Using an Assistive Listening Device. You can use hearing devices, such as TV-listening systems or phone-amplifying devices, smartphone or tablet apps, and closed-circuit systems in public places. This will be a great help as it will decrease noises around you.

Preparing for an appointment

If you suspect you may have hearing loss, book an appointment with us. Here’s some information that can help you prepare for your appointment.

What you can do

  • Write down your symptoms and how long you’ve had them. Is the hearing loss in one ear or both? Ask friends and family to help you make the list. They may have noticed changes that aren’t obvious to you, but the changes may be important for your doctor to know.
  • Write down key medical information, especially related to any ear problems. Include any chronic infections, injury to your ear or previous ear surgery. Also list medications, vitamins or supplements you take.
  • Summarize your work history, including any jobs, even those in the distant past, that exposed you to high noise levels.
  • Take a family member or friend along. Someone who accompanies you can help you remember all the information from your doctor.
  • Write down questions for your doctor.

For hearing loss, some questions to ask include:

  • What’s the most likely cause of my symptoms?
  • What else might be causing my symptoms?
  • What tests do you recommend?
  • Should I stop taking any of my current medications?
  • Should I see a specialist?

There are many ways in which your specialist can help you. They will be there to support you with any questions you have, and their aim is to make this process painless, comfortable and reassuring to you. If you think your hearing is deteriorating, or you have a sudden blockage of your ear, contact us today and we will be happy to help.