Editor's note: This article was originally posted in 2009. Due to its overwhelming popularity, we've updated it to republish today.
If the eyes are the window to the soul, then your ears may be the doorway. Sound from our favorite music soothes us, a familiar voice brings us joy and the intrusive clamor of a fire alarm signals danger.
Much like vision, your hearing varies in each ear. And, just as an eye care professional measures the degrees of correction to prescribe eyeglasses, a hearing healthcare professional measures the degree of severity to determine your hearing loss.
How sound is measured
The loudness of sound is measured in units called decibels (dB). For example, here are decibel levels for some common sounds:
- Normal household: 50 dB
- Normal conversation: 60 dB
- Rock concert: 120 dB
- Gunshot: 140 dB
Prolonged exposure to sounds louder than 85 dB can cause damage to your hearing; sound at 120 dB is uncomfortable and 140 dB is the threshold of pain.
Frequency, or pitch, is measured in Hertz (Hz). When hearing ability is tested, a range of 250 Hz to 8000 Hz is measured because it encompasses the speech frequencies, the most important range for communication.
Degrees of hearing loss
When measured together by your hearing healthcare professional, dB and Hz tell the degree of hearing loss you have in each ear.
- Mild hearing loss: If one-on-one conversations are fine but you’re having difficulty understanding some words when there’s a lot of background noise, you may have mild hearing loss. Technically speaking, it’s defined as having hearing loss between 26 and 40 dB in the speech frequencies.
- Moderate hearing loss: At this level, you are asking people to repeat themselves a lot during conversations – in person and on the telephone. Individuals with this degree of hearing loss cannot hear sounds lower than 40-69 dB.
- Severe hearing loss: If you can’t hear what people are saying without the use of a hearing aid or other amplification, or you tend to rely on reading lips to understand the conversation, you may have severe hearing loss. Individuals with this degree of hearing loss cannot hear sound lower than 70-94 dB.
- Profound hearing loss: If you have profound hearing loss, you can only hear extremely loud conversation or sound – and even then it’s difficult to understand without a hearing aid or cochlear implant. You may prefer using sign language to communicate. Individuals with this degree of hearing loss cannot hear sound lower than 95 dB.
How hearing loss is measured
So how do you know if you have hearing loss – and to what degree? Don’t guess or try to treat your inability to hear with over-the-counter or mail order solutions. Instead, make an appointment with a qualified hearing healthcare professional. Your family physician may be able to refer you, or you can visit our online directory and find a trusted professional in your community.
The hearing healthcare professional will administer a series of hearing tests. The outcome of the evaluation is known as an audiogram, a graph of the softest sounds you heard during your test. Here’s an example of an audiogram of someone with mild to moderately severe high frequency hearing loss. As you can see, hearing thresholds in each ear are not always the same.
Based on the outcome and the lifestyle information you provide, the hearing healthcare professional will be able to recommend a course of treatment, which may include the purchase of hearing aids and enrollment in aural communication classes. Keep in mind, untreated hearing loss puts you at risk for developing a host of other health-related problems, including depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. With close to 80 percent of hearing aid users reporting satisfaction with their hearing instruments, there’s no time like the present to get your hearing tested – and treated.