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Types of hearing loss

Understand types of hearing loss and their causes

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by Sandi Pope ConsumerAffairs Research Team
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Whether you lose your hearing suddenly or over time, hearing loss can lessen your quality of life. Fortunately, many cases of hearing loss are treatable with hearing aids, surgery or implants.

Read on to learn about the causes and types of hearing loss and compare different hearing solutions.

Hearing loss causes

There are many causes of hearing loss. Some of these causes are preventable, while others are out of a person’s control. Common causes of hearing loss include:

  • Aging and deterioration of inner ear structure
  • Exposure to loud noises
  • Disease or illness
  • Heredity causes
  • Ear trauma
  • Earwax or fluid buildup
  • Certain medications

What are the types of hearing loss?

There are four types of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss, conductive hearing loss, mixed hearing loss and auditory neuropathy.

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: Sensorineural hearing loss is the result of damage to the inner ear or auditory nerve. It is the most common type of hearing loss and can be caused by aging, loud noises, head trauma, illness or certain medicines. Hearing aids may help people with sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Conductive hearing loss: Conductive hearing loss, also called conduction deafness, occurs when sound waves can’t reach the inner ear. Potential conductive hearing loss causes include benign tumors, ear infection, earwax or having a hole in the eardrum. Conductive hearing loss is treated with medicine or surgery.
  • Mixed hearing loss: Mixed hearing loss refers to a combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. It occurs when there is damage to the inner ear and the middle or outer ear. Mixed hearing loss is treated on a case-by-case basis.
  • Auditory neuropathy: Auditory neuropathy occurs when the inner ear can’t successfully send sounds to the brain. The cause can be genetic mutations or damage to the auditory system, inner hair cells or auditory neurons. Research continues into the best treatment for auditory neuropathy.

Degrees of hearing loss

There are five levels to measure the severity of hearing loss: mild, moderate, moderately severe, severe and profound. The table below shows the severity of each category.

Degree of hearing lossHearing loss in decibelsCannot hear
Mild26 - 40 dBTicking clocks, soft whisper, refrigerator humming
Moderate41 - 55 dBSpeech during a normal conversation
Moderately severe56 - 70 dBAir conditioner, washing machine, dishwasher
Severe71 - 90 dBLawnmower, some loud sounds
Profound91+ dBLoud TV or radio, most loud sounds

The nature of hearing loss

Hearing loss has other characteristics beyond type and degree. Hearing loss can also be:

Sudden or progressive
Sudden hearing loss is when hearing loss develops very quickly; progressive hearing loss develops over time.
Unilateral or bilateral
Unilateral hearing loss, also called single-sided hearing loss, describes hearing loss in one ear only. Bilateral hearing loss refers to a loss of hearing in both ears.
Asymmetrical or symmetrical
Like worsening eyesight, hearing loss may be more severe in one ear than in the other. Asymmetrical hearing loss refers to a difference in hearing loss between one ear and the other. Symmetrical hearing loss refers to a relative match in hearing loss severity.
Prelingual or postlingual
A person with prelingual deafness experienced hearing loss before learning how to speak. Postligual hearing loss develops after a person has learned to speak.
Acquired or congenital
Congenital hearing loss refers to children who are born with hearing loss. Anyone who develops hearing loss after birth has acquired, or delayed onset, hearing loss.
High-frequency
People with high-frequency hearing loss have difficulty hearing high-pitched sounds, including certain consonants and hissing noises. High-frequency deafness is typically caused by aging and damage to hair cells in the inner ear. Those with high-frequency hearing loss often feel their hearing is muffled or that they can hear but not understand people speaking.
Fluctuating or stable
Fluctuating hearing loss occurs when the degree of hearing loss changes over time. Stable hearing loss doesn’t get better or worse.

Hearing loss treatment

There are effective treatments for hearing loss, including hearing aids, cochlear implants, medicine and surgery. Physicians usually treat sensorineural hearing loss, the most common type, with hearing aids. However, those who have damage to their outer or middle ear may require medical treatment. If you’re experiencing sudden hearing loss, contact a doctor immediately.

Hearing impairment treatment is delicate, and you should not try any treatments without receiving a diagnosis and recommendation from a medical professional. A proper hearing loss solution can improve your day-to-day life.

Bottom Line

Each person’s hearing loss is different. Hearing care professionals consider the cause, type and degree of hearing loss before recommending a hearing loss solution. For many people, hearing aids improve hearing loss. Hearing aid technology advances every year, making it possible for more and more people to find a custom hearing solution that matches their needs.

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Profile picture of Sandi Pope
by Sandi Pope ConsumerAffairs Research Team

Sandi Pope previously worked in the nonprofit sector as an advocate for environmental and social change and believes information access is a human right. As a member of the ConsumerAffairs Research Team, she seeks to provide consumers with the necessary information needed in making life-altering decisions.