Deafness means a lack or loss of the sense of hearing, which may be partial or complete. Partial loss of hearing is often called hearing loss rather than deafness.
Deafness can occur in one or both ears.
There are three primary types of hearing loss:
Conductive—hearing loss caused by the inability of the sound to reach the inner ear. This can result from outer or middle ear problems, such as ear infection, excess wax, or swelling. This type of hearing loss is most likely to respond to medical or surgical treatment.
Sensorineural—hearing loss caused by disorders of the inner ear or auditory nerve. This type of loss is usually permanent. It can be caused by heredity or congenital problems, excess noise, old age, medications, infections, and
, or from tumors compressing the nerve of hearing such as an
Mixed—hearing losses that are a combination of both conductive and sensorineural loss.
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The conditions that can cause or be associated with hearing loss include the following: Ear infectionsMiddle ear fluidEarwaxHole in the ear drum Trauma
may cause rupture of the tympanic membrane and disruption of the middle ear ossicles, or concussion of the inner ear
Nose or throat problems, such as:
Nasal allergiesSinus problemsBlockage of the tubes leading from the ears to the throatHereditary factors
Trauma, injury, or
Ear disorders, such as:
Infections, such as:
Bacterial infections, such as:
Tumors involving the:
Neurological disorders, such as:
Multiple sclerosisStrokeHypothyroidism—underactive thyroid
Ototoxic drugs that damage the ear, such as:
Aspirin—usually reverses when aspirin is stoppedQuinine—usually reverses when quinine is stoppedCertain antibiotics—usually is
reversible when stopped
Deafness may occur at any age. Risk factors that increase your chances of deafness include:
Increased ageTaking ototoxic medications
Exposure to loud noise on the job, such as:
Loud industrial noiseUse of heavy equipmentBeing a musician
Exposure to recreational loud noise, such as:
Guns used during target practiceLoud musicFamily history of deafness
Hearing loss usually comes on gradually, but may come on suddenly. Symptoms may include:
Ringing in the ears, also called tinnitusDizzinessEar pain
in case of an infectionFeeling of ear fullness, such as that caused by earwax or fluid
Symptoms of deafness in infants may be noted at these stages:
1 to 4 months: lack of response to sounds or voices
4 to 8 months:
Disinterest in musical toysLack of verbalization, such as babbling, cooing, making sounds8 to 12 months: lack of recognition of child’s own name12 to 16 months: lack of speech
All children, including newborns, should be screened for hearing loss.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. As part of the diagnosis, your doctor may try to determine the following:
Location of the problemDegree of lossCause—not always possible to identify the exact cause of hearing loss; this information can help guide treatment
Depending on the type of hearing loss you have, the doctor may order tests to confirm your diagnosis. Tests may include:
You may have the structures inside your ears examined. This can be done with otoscopy.You may have the fluid in your ear measured. This can be done with tympanometry.You may have your brain's electrical response tested. This can be done with a brainstem auditory evoked response test.You may have tests to determine your hearing loss. These may include: Bone vibrator—also called a tuning fork testAudiogram—also called a hearing testYou may have images taken of your head. This can be done with: CT scanMRI scan
Treatment for deafness depends on the type of hearing loss. Options may include:
Medical treatment, such as removal of earwax or use of antibiotics to treat an ear infectionIn selected cases of sudden hearing loss, medical treatment with steroids may be effective.Hearing aids to help amplify sounds
Surgery, such as:
Stapedectomy—for treatment of otosclerosisTympanoplasty
—for a perforated eardrum
Tympanoplasty tubes—for persistent middle ear infections or fluidCochlear implant
—a surgically implanted electronic device that helps provide sound to a person with severe sensorineural hearing loss. Although the devices do not completely restore hearing, improvements in implant technology continue to be made.
To help prevent deafness, avoid loud noise. In cases when loud noise cannot be avoided, you can reduce exposure to loud noises by wearing earplugs, earmuffs, or ear protectors. Also, taking steps to reduce injuries or disease may prevent certain types of deafness.
There is currently no effective way to prevent congenital or genetic deafness.
Hearing screening for newborns can help ensure that hearing loss in young babies is detected and treated at the earliest possible stage.
Plaza G, Herráiz C. Intratympanic steroids for treatment of sudden hearing loss after failure of intravenous therapy.
Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg
. 2007 Jul;137(1):74-8.
Last reviewed September 2012 by Kari Kassir, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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