Almost 36 million Americans over the age of 50 have some type of hearing loss. For many people, this loss happens so gradually that they don't notice it – at least, not right away. For some people, the hearing loss is sudden and noticeable. Here are the four most common types of hearing problems, and what you can do about them.
Why it happens: As people age – especially those who are frequently exposed to loud noises like musicians or people who work with loud machinery – they may have a type of hearing loss called Presbycusis. This gradual hearing loss is the result of the death of hair cells in the cochlea, in your inner ear. These hair cells translate sound vibrations into brain signals, and once they die, they do not regenerate.
Trouble hearing in noisy places like a restaurant or at a party is one of the first, noticeable signs of hearing loss. This is because filtering out background noise gets harder with fewer hair cells.
How to fix it: Once cells are damaged or dead, they are gone for good, and can't be replaced. But you can prevent further loss by limiting your exposure to loud sounds. Wear protective headphones when working with loud machines, and turn the music down on your iPod – if the person next to you can hear the music in your ear buds, it's too loud.
If hearing loss is affecting your everyday life, talk to your audiologist about hearing aids. The new technology in hearing aids can reduce the background noise while allowing you to hear speech more clearly. And new hearing aids are practically invisible, so no one will know you're wearing them.
Why it happens: This feeling is usually caused by excess mucus in the eustachian tube from an allergy or infection. This tube regulates airflow between the throat and middle ear, and when it is blocked, you may get a feeling of fullness or muffled hearing, as well as pain, tinnitus and sometimes popping in your ears. A buildup of earwax can also cause this feeling.
How to fix it: When the infection goes away, the mucus will clear and the eustachian tube will work normally again. Antihistamines and decongestants can help reduce inflammation, and a healthcare provider can help you remove excess earwax.
Why it happens: Hair cells and nerves can be affected by the sudden fluid buildup from a virus or ear infection. Certain medications including aspirin, chemotherapy drugs and some antibiotics can also cause quick damage to hair cells or nerves.
How to fix it: If the nerve injury is detected within 72 hours (for example, with an audiogram), steroids can help reduce the inflammation and prevent swelling of the auditory nerve. If it is left untreated, the swollen auditory nerve can cause permanent hearing loss. If the hearing loss is the result of medication, a change in the medication, if possible, will alleviate the hearing loss.
Why it happens: These symptoms together could mean that you have Meniere's Disease. This disorder is not common, but it does affect one in every 500 people in the United States. The disease changes the amount, flow and composition of the fluid in the inner ear, leading to the trouble with your hearing and other symptoms.
How to fix it: While there is no cure for Meniere's Disease, it is treatable. A doctor-prescribed diuretic and a low-sodium diet can help reduce fluid in the inner ear. In rare cases, doctors may recommend a steroid injection to reduce inflammation in the inner ear or drain the fluid from the ear with a tube.
No matter what type of hearing loss you suffer, it is important to visit your physician or audiologist immediately to receive a proper diagnosis and treatment. The sooner you seek professional help, the more likely your hearing loss can be treated easily and effectively, with no long-term effects.
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