Hearing loss and deafness: Types, treatment, prevention

Hearing loss and deafness types

If your hearing isn’t what it used to be, you’re not alone. A lot of people across the globe has hearing loss or is deaf.  However, more of them are getting the help they need to hear better. This article explains the different types, causes of hearing loss and deafness and what action you can take if you’re losing your hearing.

Deafness is a partial or complete loss of hearing. It may occur at birth or as the result of hearing loss at any stage throughout life. Hearing loss can range from mild to profound and has many different causes such as injury, disease, genetic defects and the ageing process.

Hearing loss prevention

Hearing loss at birth is known as congenital hearing loss while hearing loss that occurs after birth is acquired hearing loss. The most common cause of acquired hearing loss is noise. It accounts for over 1/4 of people affected by hearing loss.

What causes hearing loss and deafness?

Hearing loss and deafness are the result of sound signals not reaching the brain due to a problem in the hearing system. There are two main types of hearing loss, depending on where the problem lies:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss is the result of damage to the hair cells inside the inner ear or damage to the hearing nerve (or both). It changes your ability to hear quiet sounds and reduces the quality of the sound that you hear. It is permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss happens when sounds cannot pass from your outer ear to your inner ear. This is often because of a blockage such as ear wax. Sounds become quieter and sometimes sound muffled. This hearing loss can be temporary or permanent.

However, when one has a combination of both conductive and sensorineural hearing losses it is called a ‘mixed’ hearing loss.

What are the causes of hearing loss and deafness?

The causes of hearing loss and deafness can be congenital or acquired.

Congenital causes

Congenital causes may lead to hearing loss being present at or acquired soon after birth. Hearing loss can be caused by either hereditary and non-hereditary genetic factors.  It can also be due to certain complications during pregnancy and childbirth such as:

  • maternal rubella, syphilis or certain other infections during pregnancy
  • low birth weight
  • birth asphyxia – a lack of oxygen at the time of birth
  • inappropriate use of particular drugs during pregnancy, such as antimalarial drugs, diuretics
  • severe jaundice in the neonatal period, which can damage the hearing nerve in a newborn infant.

Acquired causes

Acquired causes may lead to hearing loss at any age, such as:

  • infectious diseases such as meningitis, measles and mumps
  • chronic ear infections
  • collection of fluid in the ear (otitis media)
  • use of certain medicines such as those used in the treatment of malaria, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and cancers
  • injury to the head or ear such as in an accident
  • excessive noise, including occupational noise such as that from machinery and explosions
  • recreational exposure to loud sounds such as that from use of personal audio devices at high volumes and for prolonged periods of time.  Regular attendance at concerts, nightclubs, bars and sporting events
  • ageing in particular due to degeneration of sensory cells
  • wax or foreign bodies blocking the ear canal.

Among children, chronic otitis media is a common cause of hearing loss.

What are the signs of hearing loss and deafness?

Deafness causes

Hearing loss can sometimes be sudden, but often it’s gradual and you may not realize it early. Detecting the signs early can help you identify the problem quickly. Early detection can also be the first step towards getting treatment for your condition.

  • Ringing, buzzing or whistling sound in your ears
  • Often asking people to repeat what they say
  • Finds it very hard to follow conversation in public places
  • Watching TV louder than your family wants it
  • Struggling to hear on the phone
  • Others complaining that you don’t listen to them

Your baby or toddler may have hearing loss if they:

  • aren’t startled by loud noises
  • don’t turn towards the source of a sound while under four months old
  • doesn’t say single words by the time they’re one year old
  • notice you when they see you, but not when you call their name
  • appear to hear some sounds but not others.

Your older child may have hearing loss if they:

  • are slow to learn to talk, or they’re not clear when they speak
  • often ask you to repeat yourself or respond inappropriately to a question
  • don’t reply when you call them
  • often talk very loudly


If you’re losing your hearing and struggling to communicate, you may find that your quality of life is affected. Hearing aids and other forms of management can help you to regain your confidence.

People with hearing loss can benefit from the use of hearing devices, such as hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other assistive devices. They may also benefit from speech therapy, aural rehabilitation and other related services. Also, they can learn to communicate through development of lip-reading skills, use of written or printed text, and sign language.

Prevention of hearing loss and deafness

  • immunizing children against childhood diseases such as measles, rubella and mumps
  • immunizing adolescent girls and women of reproductive age against rubella before pregnancy;
  • promotion of safe childbirth
  • following healthy ear care practices
  • reducing exposure to loud sounds
  • encouraging individuals to use personal protective devices such as earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones.
  • screening of children for otitis media, followed by appropriate medical or surgical interventions;
  • avoiding the use of particular drugs which may be harmful to hearing, unless prescribed and monitored by a qualified physician;
  • referring infants at high risk, such as those with a family history of deafness or those born with low birth weight, birth asphyxia, jaundice or meningitis, for early assessment of hearing
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