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Hearing loss

6-minute read

Key facts

  • Hearing loss is usually permanent. Treatment involves improving what hearing remains.
  • Years of exposure to loud noise — either at work or through recreation — can cause hearing loss.
  • Most people experience some degree of hearing loss as they get older.
  • Protecting your hearing is vital to prevent any hearing loss from getting worse.

What is hearing loss?

Hearing loss makes it difficult or impossible to hear speech and other sounds. There are different types of hearing loss, and they can range from mild to severe. Some types of hearing loss are temporary, and some are permanent.

There are several types of hearing loss:

  • Auditory processing disorders: These occur when the brain cannot process sound. This makes it hard to understand speech or to work out where sounds are coming from.
  • Conductive hearing loss: There is when there is a problem with the outer or middle ear, so sound cannot pass through to the inner ear. It may be caused by ear wax, an ear infection, a punctured ear drum, fluid in the ear or abnormal bone growth in the ear (known as otosclerosis). These conditions can usually be treated.
  • Sensorineural hearing Loss: This occurs when the hearing organ, the cochlea, and/or the auditory nerve are damaged or malfunction so they are unable to accurately send electrical information to the brain. Sensorineural hearing loss is almost always permanent.
  • Mixed hearing loss: With this type, there is both conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss.

1 in 6 Australians experience hearing loss. You can have trouble with your hearing at any age, but help is available and there are ways to stop hearing loss from getting worse.

What are the symptoms of hearing loss?

The first signs of hearing loss can be hard to notice and might include:

  • having trouble hearing in noisy places
  • having trouble hearing conversations and understanding what people say
  • have trouble understanding people unless they are facing you, or often needing to ask people to repeat themselves
  • hearing sounds as muffled, as though people are mumbling
  • needing to have the TV up louder than other people
  • often missing your phone or the doorbell ringing
  • hearing a constant buzzing or ringing in your ears
  • finding that loud noises cause you more discomfort than previously

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, see your doctor.

Some people also get tinnitus, where they hear ringing or strange noises in their ears.

It can be hard to determine whether or not children have trouble hearing. Some signs that there might be problems include:

  • if your baby doesn't startle at a loud noise, or turn their head to a sound
  • if they start speaking later than other kids or don't understand simple words like 'bye bye' at 4-8 months
  • if their speech is unclear, compared with the speech of other kids their age
  • if they want the TV volume up high
  • if they don’t hear or understand directions

Find out more about hearing loss in children on the Pregnancy, Birth and Baby website. You should talk to your doctor if you notice any changes in your or your child’s hearing.

What causes hearing loss?

Hearing loss can be caused by

  • years of exposure to noise, which is especially true for people who work in loud environments, such as live music venues, mining, building or farming
  • ear infections
  • a head injury
  • exposure to certain chemicals or medications including aspirin, some antibiotics and some cancer drugs
  • listening to very loud music with headphones

Nearly everybody finds their hearing gets worse as they get older. In some cases, genetics plays a part — and some families develop hearing problems earlier in life than other families.

When should I see my doctor?

If you are concerned about your hearing and are experiencing any of the symptoms of hearing loss listed above, see your doctor.

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ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use our Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is hearing loss diagnosed?

Hearing loss is diagnosed with a hearing test. This is done by an audiologist.

How is hearing loss treated?

In most people, hearing loss cannot be reversed, but there are treatments available that can help you improve your hearing, including:

  • hearing aids
  • cochlear implants and
  • surgery

Technology, including some phone apps, can also help. You can find out more about technology for hearing loss at Hearing Australia’s website.

Find out more about hearing loss prevention and the Australian Government’s hearing services program.

Can hearing loss be prevented?

Most types of hearing loss are permanent, so it’s important to prevent hearing loss before it occurs. If you do have damage to your hearing, you can still try to stop it from getting worse.

The best way to protect your hearing is to limit your exposure to loud noises. That means both loud noises on individual occasions, and over the course of your lifetime.

To prevent damage to your hearing:

  • keep your music, TV and radio down — you should be able to easily talk to someone 2 metres away
  • at clubs, live music and other loud events, wear earplugs, take frequent breaks and give your hearing 18 hours to recover afterwards
  • wear earplugs or ear protection equipment, such as earmuffs, in noisy workplaces
  • if you use headphones or earphones, limit use to an hour at a time then take a break
  • if you can, use headphones or earphones that block outside noise
  • don't listen to music at more than 60% of the maximum volume

Workplaces have rules about noise levels, but you need to make sure they are being followed. If you are concerned about your hearing, your doctor can put you in touch with an audiologist, who will test your hearing and suggest ways to limit any further damage.

How loud is too loud?

You’re probably exposing yourself to dangerous noise levels if:

  • if you need to shout to be heard by a person 1 metre away from you
  • you’re listening to music through headphones and can’t hear traffic sounds or people talking near you

If you hear ringing in your ears after an event or a day at work, it was too loud. If you have a lot of days like that, you will almost certainly damage your hearing.

Resources and support

If you are concerned about your hearing, you might consider doing an online test before you see your doctor or an audiologist. On the Know Your Noise website, funded by the Australian Government Department of Health, lets you work out whether your hearing might be a problem.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2020


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