What causes hearing loss?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

Genetics and damage from a variety of sources can cause hearing impairment. The children of a deaf parent can inherit deafness. Pregnancy and childbirth complications can cause hearing impairment, such as prematurity, oxygen deprivation, jaundice, infections. Chronic ear infections can damage the ear to the point of hearing loss. Infectious diseases like measles, mumps and meningitis can impair hearing, most often in children. Taking ototoxic drugs at any time can affect hearing ability. Sometimes hearing impairment is caused temporarily by blockage of the ear canal by wax or more permanently by the insertion of an object in the ear. Exposure to excessively loud noise (music, gunfire, explosions, machinery) can hurt the inner ear's ability to function. Age can also be a factor in hearing impairment after prolonged noise exposure over the years.

The biggest threat to your hearing is loud noise. Much research has shown that being exposed to loud noises over a period of time can lead to significant and permanent hearing loss. (Even snoring is about 85 decibels.)

Your ability to hear depends on the hairs on the cochlea (a circular structure in your ear containing tiny hairs called cilia). When these hair cells die, that's what causes hearing loss. It's thought that repeated exposure to loud noises or diminished blood supply cause these hairs to die.

Of course, hearing loss can occur for other reasons as well. An excess of earwax can cause you to lose hearing sensitivity. Also, a relatively simple and treatable infection can develop if water gets trapped inside your ear (a common occurrence in children). Without quick treatment, it can lead to hearing loss.

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Dr. David M. Vernick, MD
Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT Specialist)

Hearing loss has many causes, including genetic defects, infection and side effects from medication, but the cause of about one-third of cases of hearing loss is avoidable: routine exposure to very loud noise. Jackhammers, lawn mowers and airplanes are obvious sources, but other culprits are portable music players and other gadgets that have become part of the fabric of everyday life.

Dr. Eric E. Smouha, MD
Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT Specialist)

There can be many causes of hearing loss. Among the most common are:

  • Ear infections
  • Certain medications—some are reversible and some are irreversible. For instance, high doses of aspirin can cause hearing loss, but the effect is reversed when the dose is reduced or discontinued. Certain chemotherapy agents, for instance, Cisplatinum, can cause irreversible hearing loss.
  • Excessive noise exposure
  • Heredity;
  • Birth defects;
  • Traumatic injury (such as a head injury);
  • Tumors;
  • The natural aging process. About 30 percent of people over the age of 60 have hearing loss. It is the third most common chronic problem affecting the aging population.

Hearing loss can be caused by exposure to loud noise over the course of a lifetime. In that way, exposure to noise is cumulative over the lifetime, so even if people had noise exposure when they were young, once the damage is done it's done permanently. The ear doesn't recover from noise exposure.

Also, hearing loss is an inevitable consequence of age. All people lose hearing as they age due to wear and tear of the fine structures in the inner ear.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.