Are you concerned you or a loved one has hearing loss?
The symptoms of hearing loss depend on the type of hearing loss you have—and the severity. A person with mild hearing loss in both ears, for example, experiences sound differently than a person with a profound hearing loss in just one ear.
Symptoms by hearing loss type:
General symptoms of hearing loss
For adults with any kind of hearing loss, these are all good indicators that you may not be hearing as well as you used to. You may experience all or just a few of these scenarios:
The most common type of hearing loss is sensorineural hearing loss, which is caused from damage to the delicate hair cells in the inner ear and/or the nerve pathways that deliver sound to your brain. About 90% of people with hearing loss have this type, and it has a wide range of causes.
Sensorineural hearing loss is usually gradual—you don't wake up overnight not being able to hear. Instead, you slowly lose the ability to hear. Both how loudly (volume) and how clearly (clarity) you perceive sound are affected. You might also find some louder sounds to be uncomfortable to listen to, especially compared to years past. For example, you once loved fireworks shows, but now find the booming sounds nearly unbearable.
Sensorineural hearing loss can affect all ranges of hearing. Some people may struggle to hear both low-pitched and high-pitched sounds, while others may only struggle with one range. One ear may hear better than the other, too. There's wide variability among people, even with the same type of hearing loss. Have you had a hearing test, but don't understand the results? This primer on how to read an audiogram can help.
One of the more common types of sensorineural hearing loss is high-frequency hearing loss, which appears as a "ski slope" pattern on an audiogram. Many people who have presbycusis, a type of age-related hearing loss, develop this kind of hearing loss. It results in the reduced ability to hear things like:
Similar to high-frequency hearing loss, noise-notch hearing loss means you can't hear certain high-pitched sounds very well (such as children's voices). But unlike high-frequency hearing loss, you may still hear very high-pitched sounds (birds or beeps). This type of hearing loss is associated with noise-induced hearing loss, especially loud gun blasts. For example, hunters who develop shooter's ear often have a noise-notch pattern of hearing loss.
Less common than high-frequency hearing loss, "cookie-bite" hearing loss (which gets its name from its distinctive pattern on an audiogram) is when a child or adult has trouble hearing sounds in the mid-range frequencies. These are sounds that are neither particularly high-pitched nor low-pitched. As you can imagine, this includes many common sounds, making everyday situations like talking to friends or listening to music challenging. Generally people with this kind of hearing loss will realize they can easily hear things like squealing alarms or booming thuds, yet struggle to hear speech or music at what are seemingly normal volumes for other people.
Rarer still, reverse-slope hearing loss is essentially the opposite of high-frequency hearing loss. Symptoms include finding men's voices harder to hear than women's or children's voices, struggling to hear people on the phone but not so much during face-to-face conversations, and inability to hear environmental sounds that are low-pitched, such as the bass in music or thunder. A person with reverse slope hearing loss also might seem unusually sensitive to high-pitched sounds, too. Sometimes, Meniere's disease can cause this type of hearing loss in the earlier stages of the disease.
About 10% of people with hearing loss have conductive hearing loss, which means that their inner ear works fine, but their outer or middle ear isn't working normally for some reason (causes can range from a severe earwax blockage to head trauma). Most other types of permanent conductive hearing loss are detected at birth or soon after.
In adults, when it does occur, it tends to develop must faster than sensorineural hearing loss, and depending on the cause, may be reversible. The symptoms will be similar to general hearing loss symptoms, just occurring at a faster rate. For example, if you are in a bad car accident and notice you're struggling to hear speech, and feel like your own voice sounds odd to you, you may have conductive hearing loss. Any pain, pressure, or strange odor in your ears are other clues you may have a condition that causes conductive hearing loss.
In rare cases, a person can develop sudden hearing loss, usually in one ear. It may be conductive or sensorineural. The symptoms and signs are generally pretty obvious—you suddenly can't hear well out of one ear. But if you have a bad cold or ear infection, it may be hard to tell if it's just temporary congestion or actual hearing damage from the virus or bacteria. In some cases, people hear a loud pop and then lose their hearing. The affected ear may feel stuffy, or "full," and a person may feel dizziness or hearing ringing in your ear. Because prompt treatment is key, act fast if you experience sudden hearing loss.
Some causes of conductive sudden hearing loss can lead to what's known as "flat" hearing loss. This is when you struggle to hear sounds across the noise spectrum—low-pitched, normal and high-pitched. All sounds would be harder to hear compared to a person with normal hearing.
For people with severe to profound hearing loss in one ear, you may notice it's harder to tell where sound is coming from, known as localization. You also may have a hard time focusing on a single source of sound in a noisy environment, such as at a party. You might also struggle to discern how loud a sound is, because your brain relies on sensory input from both ears to detect volume. People with single-sided deadness also experience something known as as the "head shadow" effect, which makes high-pitched sounds harder to hear.
Temporary hearing loss is often related to exposure to loud noises, such as gunfire, fireworks, concerts or exposure at work. Temporary hearing loss is characterized by a temporary threshold shift (TTS), meaning that you temporarily won't hear as well. It's often accompanied by tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. It can last for only a few hours or several days before hearing returns to normal.
The ears have a harder time recovering from TTS after each occurrence. Any regular noise exposure puts you at risk of hearing loss, including noise-notch hearing loss (see above), linked to noise-induced hearing loss. You can avoid this by learning how to prevent hearing loss.
Hearing loss in children is usually detected with the help of a newborn infant hearing screening soon after birth. Some parents also may be able to detect hearing loss in their child if it's not caught at birth.
Symptoms of hearing loss in children include:
Signs of hearing loss
A "sign" is what a health care provider can detect with testing or a medical exam (and a "symptom" is what you notice but can't necessarily be measured). To look for the signs of hearing loss, a hearing care provider will generally start with questions about symptoms you're experiencing, and then conduct a formal hearing test to see how well you hear beep-like sounds (known as a pure-tone test), speech in noise and other sounds. Your hearing is then plotted on an audiogram that shows the extent of your hearing loss in both ears.
Permanent hearing loss cannot be restored and usually involves damage to the auditory nerves or the tiny hair cells of the inner ear. For most people, the best solution is properly fitted hearing aids. In some cases, cochlear implants or bone-anchored hearing systems may be recommended.
If you suspect hearing loss in yourself, your child or someone close to you, use our directory of consumer-reviewed clinics to find a hearing specialist or audiologist near you. The sooner you seek help, the better your outcome will be.