What are the most common causes of hearing loss, both temporary and permanent?
Noise exposure and age-related hearing loss (or a combination of these) are the most common causes of hearing loss. As a rule of thumb, hearing loss that comes from the inner ear is generally permanent and progressive. Most people over the age of 50 start presenting with some degree of hearing loss related to wear and tear of the tiny hair
cells in the inner ear. Noise exposure from the past (time spent in the army, working in factories, etc) can catch up with you later in life. Other less obvious professions at risk include receptionists, teachers and dentists. Temporary hearing loss might be caused by significant, impacted wax or middle-ear infections. These are treated by medication and/or surgery.
Viral infections of the inner ear are surprisingly common – these result in a sudden onset of hearing loss that may just feel like a blocked ear. This can be accompanied by dizziness or tinnitus. If your ear suddenly feels blocked, have a hearing test and see an ENT (ear, nose & throat) specialist urgently as some viruses can cause permanent hearing loss if they aren’t treated within several days.
Can my GP diagnose hearing loss, or will I need to see an audiologist?
Your GP can’t diagnose hearing loss. However, you can find an audiologist in your area and you won’t need a referral for a hearing test. Audiologists will check for other contributing factors, like impacted wax or middle-ear pathology, and refer you on to a doctor if necessary.
Many people remain in denial about hearing loss, and it can be gradual. What are the typical signs that I should pay attention to if I suspect my hearing is compromised?
- Do you feel that people often mumble, or don’t speak clearly?
- Is the TV louder than the rest of your family would prefer?
- Do you find that you can hear people, but can’t always work out exactly what they are saying?
- Do you ask people to repeat themselves?
- Do you experience any difficulty hearing in the presence of background noise, like in a restaurant?
- Have your family members and friends commented about your hearing?
- Do you feel irritable in noisy places?
- Do you experience any tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears)?
If in doubt, have a hearing test conducted. Every person should have a baseline hearing test, so that if anything happens to your hearing, you have a comparison test. If you’re older than 50, it’s a good idea to have a hearing test every year or two.
Is hearing loss a natural part of getting older?
Hearing loss is pretty inevitable with aging. The degree and rate of deterioration is dependent on your genetic makeup and family history (how old were your parents when they started to lose their hearing?).
Interestingly, today’s generation of 50 to 70 year olds is significantly different to that age group from a generation ago. They are active businessmen and women, attending important meetings and social functions. The use of hearing instruments will help you keep up with your demanding lifestyle.
I’ve heard of cochlear implants helping people hear for the first time. When is this an option?
Cochlear implants are life-changing devices, but they are only indicated for someone with a severe to profound sensorineural hearing loss. Many people hear the word ‘implant’ and assume that the device is invisible.
Unfortunately, cochlear implants still require a fairly large processor behind the ear. Children born with a severe to profound hearing loss and who get little benefit from powerful hearing instruments are good Candidates for cochlear implants. Factors taken into account include age, social support, family support, language use etc. For adult candidates, a strong indicator is that they should have good spoken language abilities. Miss Deaf SA 2009, Vicki Fourie, had a cochlear implant. Read her story here. Visit South African Cochlear Implant Group (SACIG) for more information.
- Tanya Hanekom (June 2014), SAAA Marketing portfolio