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7 Common Symptoms of Hearing Loss + Tests, Treatment and Options

December 28, 2023
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A
Written by
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A

Dr. Amy Sarow is a practicing clinical audiologist and serves as Audiology Lead for Soundly. Her expertise and experience span topics including tinnitus, cochlear implants, hearing aid technology, and hearing testing. She holds a doctoral degree in audiology from the University of Iowa. During her residency at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Sarow was inspired by the three-tiered, patient-centered approach, incorporating clinical work, teaching and research.

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Leveraging my experience as an audiologist in diverse settings - from private practices to bustling hospital environments - I've been privileged to develop a broad understanding of the challenges posed by hearing loss.

Not only have I equipped individuals with devices to enhance their ability to communicate, but I've also guided them in adapting to new ways of perceiving their surroundings, navigating the world with increased confidence and independence. This journey is not always linear, but with a blend of professional expertise and real-world insights we can work together to help you live more fully.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, approximately 15% of American adults (37.5 million) aged 18 and over report some trouble hearing. That number is only expected to grow as the Boomer generation ages. 

Hearing loss is a common problem, but that doesn't mean you have to live with it. It can have a significant impact on a person's quality of life, affecting everything from work performance to social interactions. If you notice any of the following signs, it may be time to consider a hearing evaluation.

Symptoms of hearing loss 

If you or a loved one seems to be struggling to understand everyday communication the way they used to, it is a sign hearing loss may be at play. Here are a few other symptoms of hearing loss in adults:

  1. Struggling to understand people over the phone
  2. Having to ask people to repeat themselves often
  3. Needing to turn the TV volume up louder
  4. Having a hard time with conversations in places with a lot of background noise
  5. Feeling like sounds are muffled, or that people are mumbling  
  6. Avoiding social situations due to frustration or embarrassment
  7. Using coping strategies, such as: dominating the conversation, withdrawing from the conversation, or nodding without responding. 

Clearly, the symptoms of hearing loss are significant and because of that, can impact social, mental, and physical health. 

How to spot hearing loss in a child

The symptoms of hearing loss in babies and children, however, are slightly different, and can be difficult to catch.

For instance, a baby with hearing loss may not startle at loud noises. They may look at a caregiver when they move, but not when they make noise. Babies with hearing loss may seem to hear some sounds, but not others.

Another telling sign is that they haven’t said “mama” or “dada” by 12 months old. As a child ages, the symptoms of hearing loss can also include: 

  • Speech and language delays
  • Trouble hearing soft sounds, like whispers
  • Trouble with speech sounds
  • Lack of response to sounds, relying on visual cues

Because hearing loss so significantly impacts a child’s ability to learn how to talk and communicate, it is vital that hearing loss is identified early on in a child’s life.

With proper intervention, whether that’s sign language or hearing assistance, a child with hearing loss will be able to flourish just as a child without hearing loss. 

Symptoms by type of hearing loss

There are several common, major signs of hearing loss for adults and children, but there are also different types of hearing loss, and each type of hearing loss has its own set of symptoms. Further narrowing down which symptoms match you or a loved one can help to identify which type of hearing loss you have, which can affect which type of assistance will be most helpful. 

High-frequency hearing loss

High-frequency hearing loss means that it’s difficult to hear sounds that have a higher pitch. This includes some consonants (like s, f, t, or th), and women’s or children’s voices.

One common cause of high-frequency hearing loss is age. This is because the high-frequency sensors are located at the entrance of the cochlea, or the structure in the inner ear that receives sound and turns it into signals that the brain can interpret. Because every sound we hear passes the highest frequency sensors first, they receive the most wear and tear. This explains why older people often experience this type of hearing loss. High-frequency hearing loss can occur at any age, though, due to genetics or exposure to loud noises.

Symptoms of high-frequency hearing loss include: 

  • Difficulty hearing consonants, which leads to difficulty understanding speech
  • Difficulty communicating in noisy places, like a restaurant
  • Trouble understanding women’s and children’s voices
  • Increasing volume does not always make speech clear
  • Asking people to repeat themselves or speak more slowly
  • Tinnitus, or noise, such as ringing, in the ear

Low-frequency hearing loss

This type of hearing loss means that it is difficult to hear low pitches, such as men’s voices or the low bass tones in a song. It is rarer than high-frequency hearing loss. Causes of low-frequency hearing loss include genetics or diseases in childhood, such as measles.

The most common cause of low-frequency hearing loss is Meniére’s disease, which is an autoimmune disorder that causes bouts of dizziness, tinnitus, and/or hearing loss. Suppose you or a loved one has low-frequency hearing loss. In that case, they may experience the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty talking on the phone
  • Hard time telling the difference between vowel sounds
  • Music sounds “tinny,” due to the inability to hear the bass sounds in music
  • May not hear thunder sounds in a rainstorm
  • Difficulty hearing engine noises, such as whether or not a car has been started

“Notch” hearing loss

Another phrase for this type of hearing loss is “noise-induced hearing loss.” However, this type of hearing loss can also be caused by other disorders, such as infection or head trauma. It receives its name from the notch that occurs on the audiogram, or the graph that an audiologist uses during a hearing test that shows a patient’s hearing levels.

One well-established cause of a notch hearing loss is exposure to firearms without hearing protection. The symptoms of this type of hearing loss resemble those of other types of hearing loss and include: 

  • Trouble hearing alarms and birds and other high-pitched noises
  • Speech and sounds seem mumbled
  • Louder volume does not always resolve clarity
  • Having to ask people to speak more slowly or loudly
  • Needing to turn the volume up louder than others prefer
  • Ringing in the ears

Conductive hearing loss

Conductive hearing loss is caused by something interfering with the sound waves before they get to the inner ear. This is usually caused by an ear infection, a hole in the eardrum, an earwax blockage, or a bony growth in the ear that blocks sound from entering the inner ear (otosclerosis). Conductive hearing loss can sometimes be permanent but is often temporary and normal hearing resumes once the cause of the blockage is removed.

Common symptoms of conductive hearing loss include: 

  • Muffled hearing, like you are underwater
  • A feeling of fullness in the ear, called aural fullness
  • Pain in the ear
  • Your own voice may sound “boomy” or like an echo
  • Less trouble in background noise (the conductive hearing loss filters it out)
  • Once volume is loud enough, speech is clear

Flat hearing loss

The name “flat hearing loss” comes from the shape of the audiogram from someone who has equal difficulty hearing across all pitches. Thus, their audiogram looks like a flat line. If you have flat hearing loss, it means that you experience the same amount of difficulty hearing low pitches as you do high pitches. With flat hearing loss, all pitches seem muffled the same amount.

The common symptoms of flat hearing loss include: 

  • Struggling to understand people over the phone
  • Having to ask people to repeat themselves often
  • Needing to turn the TV volume up louder
  • Difficulty communicating in noisy places, such as restaurants
  • Perceiving others’ speech as “mumbled”

How to know if you have mild, moderate, or severe hearing loss

Clearly, there are many types and symptoms of hearing loss, and which type of loss you or a loved one has can affect the type of treatment required.

However, hearing loss can also be mild, moderate, or severe. But how do you know which type you are from your audiogram? A useful way to measure this is to refer to normal human speech volume. 

A person with mild hearing loss will probably be able to hear some speech sounds, but softer speech will be harder to hear. Listening in background noise will require extra effort. An audiogram will show that the loss is between 26 and 40 dB HL.

A person with moderate hearing loss will struggle to understand speech when they are listening to someone speak at a normal volume, even in quiet.

Consonant sounds (like f, s, k, th, etc.) are inaudible, and communication becomes very difficult with the listener relying more on lipreading. An audiogram will show that the loss is between 41 and 55 dbHL.

A person with severe hearing loss will not hear any speech at a normal conversational volume. In fact, communicating without a hearing aid is very difficult. They may not hear the sound of a vacuum cleaner. Only very loud sounds are audible. An audiogram will show a loss of between 71 and 90 dbHL.

Testing for hearing loss 

A comprehensive hearing evaluation is the next important step if you or a loved one is struggling with hearing loss. This online test is a quick starting point. However, you’ll want to schedule an appointment with an audiologist for a complete hearing evaluation. 

Traditional Hearing Test

This hearing test will take about 30 minutes and involve wearing headphones and listening for very soft beeping sounds and repeating words.

A special headband will also be placed behind the ear to listen for beeps. The results of these tests will show how much hearing loss you have, whether speech clarity is affected, and which part of the ear has hearing loss. 

Hearing Test for Children

There are different types of hearing tests for children, depending on their age. Some of these tests, such as otoacoustic emissions (OAEs), only require the child to sit still for a few minutes wearing a headphone piece in their ear.

Other types of hearing tests will involve the child playing games, such as dropping blocks into a bucket when they hear beeping sounds or turning their head to see a cartoon character when they hear a sound. 

Hearing loss treatment options 

Depending on your degree of hearing loss and type of hearing loss, there are different options that can best address your hearing loss. Treatment options can include:

Following a comprehensive hearing test, your audiologist or hearing healthcare provider can give you more information about which option will work best for you. 

If you or a loved one is experiencing any of the hearing loss symptoms listed above, do not hesitate to schedule an appointment with an audiologist or other professional trained to assess hearing. The ability to hear is closely associated with quality of life, and you deserve the highest quality available. 

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