Are you struggling to hear? We explain the different types of hearing loss and what you can do to treat them.
An estimated 11 million people in the UK have some level of hearing loss, and this is predicted to increase to 15.6 million by 2035. Hearing loss can impact on communication, relationships and also leave some people feeling isolated and depressed, especially if left unaddressed – but there are steps you can take to treat the problem.
What is hearing loss?
Hearing loss is a partial or total inability to hear, and is the result of sound signals not reaching the brain. Warning signs include:
difficulty hearing people clearly, misinterpreting what they say
perceiving others as mumbling, and asking them to repeat what they’ve said
having the TV turned up louder than other people need.
Hearing loss usually develops gradually as you get older, or as loud or continuous noise wears down the hearing, although it sometimes happens suddenly. If you decide to get a hearing aid, you’ll need to choose whether to get it via the NHS or privately. If you go private, find out the best and worst hearing aid providers, according to research. If you’re noticing a decline in your hearing, you may be considering hearing aids.
Good for you if: You have a permanent hearing impairment and need advice to decide where to go and which type of hearing aid is right for you. Think twice if: Your hearing impairment is temporary – for example, because you have wax in your ears.
Types of hearing loss
Hearing loss can be conductive, sensorineural, or a combination of both.
Conductive hearing loss
Sometimes a problem in the outer or middle ear stops sound waves getting through to the inner ear as well as they should do. This is known as conductive hearing loss and it can often be temporary, as a result of a build-up of wax, for example, or an infection that your GP can diagnose and treat.
Some other outer or middle-ear conditions may require further medical investigation or treatment. Your GP will refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor if they are unable to treat it themselves.
Sensorineural hearing loss
Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent and is due to the sensitive hair cells inside the cochlea (where pressure impulses are transferred to electrical impulses that travel to the brain) or the auditory nerve (a bundle of nerve fibres carrying hearing information between the cochlea and the brain) being damaged.
This can happen naturally through ageing, or can have a specific cause such as prolonged exposure to loud noise. Once the hair cells within the cochlea have been damaged they can’t be regenerated. Sensorineural hearing loss caused by ageing usually develops gradually over several years and tends to affect both ears.
You may have noticed that high-pitched sounds – such as the phone ringing – are becoming harder to hear, or that you’re having difficulty hearing people speak clearly.
As hearing can deteriorate gradually, it may not be easy for you to recognise that you aren’t hearing so well. RNID has an online hearing test, or you can do one over the phone by calling 0844 800 3838, which is charged at the local rate.
However, this is not a full hearing assessment – you should visit your GP if you think your hearing is deteriorating. The big hearing aid companies such as Boots, Hidden Hearing, Scrivens and Specsavers also have online hearing checks.
What can I do about hearing loss?
Once you’ve visited your GP to rule out underlying causes, such as wax or an infection, you’ll need to decide whether you would like your hearing test done on the NHS or by a private audiologist.
To see someone on the NHS, you’ll need a referral from your GP. In some areas of England, you may be able to choose who you see for your NHS audiology care under the Any Qualified Provider scheme (AQP). If you’d rather buy your hearing aid yourself, you can have your hearing assessed by a private audiologist. You do not need a referral from your GP to do this.
However, even if you are considering buying a hearing aid privately, you should visit your GP first to rule out treatable causes of hearing loss. Find out what Which? members said about their experiences of buying hearing aids with the NHS vs privately Make sure you protect your hearing from further damage too. Read our expert tips on using headphones safely.
Do I need a hearing aid?
When you go for your hearing test, the audiologist will establish your levels of hearing, the type of hearing loss you might have, and whether a hearing aid is a suitable option for you. Some ear conditions may necessitate further medical investigation or treatment, which the audiologist will arrange.
If hearing aids are the most suitable option, it’s important to note that each person’s hearing is individual. What works for you might not be suitable for someone else, even though your hearing test results are virtually identical. It’s important that you get the hearing aid with the right features for you and your lifestyle after a thorough examination.
Even if you find your perfect hearing aid, you’ll still need to have realistic expectations. If you have sensorineural hearing loss, the damage can’t be repaired, and hearing aids won’t be able to fully restore your hearing – but they can significantly improve your quality of life.