Hearing loss is a general term used to describe any deficiency in hearing, ranging from mild to profound in one or both ears. Typically, a person who is unable to hear anything 20 decibels or better is said to have hearing loss. People who experience hearing loss may find it difficult to have conversations with others and may rely on assistive devices and/or the sign language to communicate.
Globally, over 5% of the world’s population experience hearing loss. Closer to home, 1 in 11 Singaporeans have hearing loss.
There are many causes of hearing loss and this can happen at any age.
Hearing loss can happen prenatally where intrauterine infections, such as rubella and cytomegalovirus infection, during pregnancy lead to hearing loss of the child. It can also be inherited if there is a history of hearing loss in the family lineage.
Hearing loss can also happen perinatally or shortly after birth if there is a lack of oxygen at the time of birth or severe jaundice in the neonatal period. Other perinatal morbidities and their management may also cause hearing loss.
As you get older, other factors come into play and put you at risk of experiencing hearing loss. These include and are not limited to chronic ear infections, meningitis and other infections, trauma to the head or ear, radiation therapy for cancer that targets the head and ear, build-up of ear wax, certain medication to treat chronic illness, and more. Among these factors, the exposure to loud noises is the most worrying.
The symptoms of hearing loss vary depending on the type, cause, and degree of hearing loss. Generally, people with hearing loss may experience:
People who suffer from age-related hearing loss are known to experience what’s called high-frequency hearing loss. Higher-pitched sounds may become harder to detect.
Hearing loss does not inflict any physical pain on the body but can result in emotional distress and depression. People with hearing loss who do not know how to manage the condition or acclimatise to a new lifestyle will often find themselves withdrawing from activities that they once enjoyed.
Although hearing loss can happen at any age, you are likely to suffer some degree of hearing loss as you age. Those in their 60s tend to experience age-related hearing loss while those below 60 are likely to experience hearing loss as a result of other factors like frequent exposure to loud noises whether due to occupation or lifestyle, or if you have diabetes or heart disease. Your chances are also higher if you have a family history or family members with hearing loss.
An ENT specialist can assist with diagnosis and there are a few ways to go about doing it. It may involve a thorough examination of the head and neck, and/or an endoscopic examination of the nose and nasopharynx. A neurologic examination is occasionally called.
Following these examinations, hearing tests will be administered. Examples of hearing tests include measuring your ears response to loud noises, identifying the quietest sounds heard and at what pitch, determining the type of hearing loss and if hearing loss is experienced in one or both ears, evaluating the health of the eardrums, and determining how well speech is recognised in quiet and noisy environments.
Hearing loss can normally be treated but the treatment plan would depend on the underlying problem.
If there is an eardrum perforation, surgical repair may be required if the perforation persists for more than three months or there are recurrent ear infections with ear discharge. The cause of hearing loss is due to foreign substances and impacted wax in the ear canal, it can be removed by an ENT surgeon. If there is an external ear infection, a topical antibiotic may be applied. The cause of hearing loss is a result of medication, the medication may be stopped or changed.
For age-related hearing loss, treatment is not needed but assistive devices such as hearing aids may be used. Hearing aids amplify environmental sounds and project them into the external ear canal. Wearing a hearing aid for too long may create a sense of blockage in the ear or you may suffer from feedback and a propensity for ear infections. Patients with hearing loss may opt for hearing implants. There are mainly two types of implants: middle ear implants for people who are unable to benefit from hearing aids, and cochlear implants for people who suffer from moderate to severe sensorineural hearing loss.