Hearing loss is a major public health issue. It is the third most common physical problem after arthritis and heart disease. Hearing loss is an invisible condition. We cannot see hearing loss, only its effects. Because the presence of a hearing loss is not visible, these effects may be attributed to aloofness, confusion, or personality changes. Varying from mild to profound, hearing loss can be a sudden or gradual decrease in how well you can hear. Depending on the cause, it can be temporary or permanent.
In adults, the most common causes of hearing loss are noise and aging. Age related hearing loss, known as presbycusis, causes changes in the inner ear slowly and progressively. The loss can range from mild to severe, and is irreversible. In older people, a hearing loss is often confused with or complicates such conditions as dementia. Noise-induced hearing loss may happen slowly over time or suddenly. Being exposed to everyday noises, such as listening to very loud music, being in a noisy work environment, or using a lawn mower without hearing protection, can lead to hearing loss over many years. Sudden noise-induced hearing loss can be caused by exposure to gunfire, explosions, or close proximity to very loud music.
Other causes of hearing loss include earwax buildup, an object in the ear, injury to the ear or head, ear infection, a ruptured eardrum, and other conditions that affect the middle or inner ears. Tinnitus, or ringing sounds in the ear, may accompany hearing loss regardless of cause.
There are a number of risk factors for hearing loss in children. Hearing loss can be caused by recurrent ear infections, a family history of hearing loss, syndromes associated with hearing loss (Down syndrome, Alport syndrome), or prematurity. Hearing loss can have a major impact on a child’s development, so early intervention services are critical to avoid speech delay and educational problems. For this reason, many states in the U.S. have instituted universal newborn hearing screening so that all babies have their hearing tested before they go home from the newborn nursery.