Hearing impairment, or deafness, is when your hearing is affected by a condition or injury. Some people are born with a hearing loss while others may develop it as they get older.
Most commonly, hearing loss happens with age or is caused by loud noises.
Action on Hearing Loss (formerly the Royal National Institute for the Deaf) estimates that there are more than 10 million people in the UK with some form of hearing loss.
How hearing works
Sound waves enter your ear and cause your eardrum to vibrate. These vibrations are passed to the three small bones (ossicles) inside your middle ear.
The ossicles amplify the vibrations and pass them on to your inner ear where tiny hair cells inside the cochlea move in response to the vibrations and send a signal through the auditory nerve to the brain.
Types of hearing loss
There are three main types of hearing loss:
conductive hearing loss – where sounds are unable to pass from your outer ear to your inner ear, often as the result of a blockage such as earwax, glue ear or a build-up of fluid due to an ear infection, a perforated ear drum or a disorder of the hearing bones
sensorineural hearing loss – the sensitive hair cells either inside the cochlea or the auditory nerve are damaged, either naturally through ageing, or as a result of injury
mixed hearing loss – it is possible to get both types of hearing loss at the same time
Read more about what causes hearing impairment.
Levels of hearing loss
The level of hearing loss can be defined as mild, moderate, severe or profound. The level of hearing loss in an individual is determined by performing a hearing test to discover the quietest sound which that person can hear.
Some ear problems may not necessarily cause hearing loss, such as tinnitus, which is the sensation of a ringing or buzzing sound in the ear.
Read more about the symptoms of hearing loss.
How can I check if I have a hearing problem?
If you think that you or your child may have hearing problems, see your GP. They will check your ear for any problems, such as earwax or a perforated eardrum (a hole or tear in the eardrum).
Your GP may refer you to an audiologist (hearing specialist) or an ENT surgeon for further tests, including tuning fork tests and Pure Tone Audiometry.
Hearing tests are routinely carried out on newborn babies within the first few weeks to try and identify any hearing problems.
You might also wish to visit the Action for Hearing Loss website for an online hearing test.
Read more about diagnosing hearing loss.
Treating hearing loss
The way hearing impairment is treated depends on the type of hearing loss and how severe it is.
In cases where there is sensorineural damage, there are several options that may help to improve a person’s ability to hear and communicate. These include:
- digital hearing aids, available through the NHS
- middle ear implants – surgically implanted devices suitable for some people who are unable to use hearing aids
- cochlear implants – small hearing devices that are surgically implanted inside the ear for people who find that hearing aids are not powerful enough
- sign language, such as British Sign Language (BSL)
For people with conductive hearing loss there is often the possibility of improving their hearing with an operation or a device such as a Bone Anchored Hearing Aid (BAHA). This will often be discussed with an ENT surgeon who will diagnose the cause and offer treatment.
Read more about treating hearing loss.
You may also wish to find services for hearing impairment and deafness support using the Support Services Directory.
Preventing hearing loss
It isn't always possible to protect a person’s hearing if they have an underlying condition that causes hearing loss.
However, there are several things you can do to reduce the risk of hearing loss from loud, consistent noise. This includes not having music or the television on at a very loud volume at home and using ear-protection at loud music events or in noisy work environments.
See your GP if there are signs of an ear infection, such as a high temperature (fever), flu-like symptoms, severe earache or hearing loss.
Read more about preventing hearing impairment.