Deafness is a decreased ability or complete inability to hear. It may be partial or total and affect one or both ears. Approximately 40% of adults over age 65 have some degree of hearing loss.
Hearing loss can occur for unknown reasons and at any age, including in infants. The cause can be a problem in the ear canal or middle ear that blocks sound. The inner ear or nerves that carry sound to the brain can also be damaged. Other causes are sudden loud noise or continued exposure to loud noise (as with earphones), viral or bacterial infection of the ear, certain drugs, and puncture of the eardrum.
Medical causes include high blood pressure, brain tumors, head injury, and Paget’s disease. Most people older than 65 have some hearing loss.
Risk factors are a family history of deafness and having a job or hobby with exposure to high noise levels (such as rock musicians or jackhammer operators).
Infants with hearing loss don’t respond to sounds around them, especially startling sounds.
In adults, symptoms include trouble telling the difference among sounds, such as being unable to follow a conversation if there’s background noise; turning up the radio or television volume; ringing in the ears; dizziness; and ear pain.
The health care provider will examine the ears and test hearing. You may be referred to an audiologist for audiometry and to be fitted for a hearing aid. Audiometry (test of hearing) uses a device that makes tones of different loudness. Other tests involve using a tuning fork, checking the ability to hear differences between words that sound similar, and measuring how loudly words have to be spoken. If hearing loss seems to be related to the brain, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be done. Your health care provider may refer you to an otolaryngologist, a doctor who specializes in the care of the ears, nose, and throat.
Treatment depends on the cause. Sometimes, simple earwax removal or eardrum puncture repair may solve the problem. The health care provider will prescribe medicine for an infection. Drugs or exposure to loud noise causing hearing loss should be stopped.
Surgery may sometimes restore hearing. For profound hearing loss (deafness), a cochlear implant can sometimes help. This implant, placed inside the ear, is a type of hearing aid that can make sounds louder. Many people learn to rely on hearing aids.
Even if hearing loss is permanent, people can live normally. The important thing is not to become isolated. A local rehabilitation facility may teach sign language and lipreading. Speech therapy may be necessary.
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