Introduction 

Hearing loss is a common problem that often develops with age or is caused by repeated exposure to loud noises.

Action on Hearing Loss estimates that more than 10 million (about 1 in 6) people in the UK have some degree of hearing impairment or deafness.

Hearing loss can occur suddenly, but usually develops gradually. General signs of hearing loss can include:

  • difficulty hearing other people clearly and misunderstanding what they say
  • asking people to repeat themselves
  • listening to music or watching television with the volume turned up high

Read more about the symptoms of hearing loss.

When to see your GP

See your GP if you are having problems with your hearing, or your child is showing signs of hearing difficulty. Particularly if you lose the hearing in one ear. If you lose your hearing suddenly you must see your GP as soon as possible.

Your GP can check for any problems and may refer you to an audiologist (hearing specialist) or an ENT surgeon for further tests.

You can also visit the Action for Hearing Loss website for an online hearing test.

Read more about diagnosing hearing loss.

Why it happens

Hearing loss is the result of sound signals not reaching the brain. There are two main types of hearing loss, depending on where the problem lies:

  • sensorineural hearing loss – caused by damage to the sensitive hair cells inside part of the inner ear called the cochlea or the auditory nerve; this occurs naturally with age or as a result of injury
  • conductive hearing loss – when sounds are unable to pass from your outer ear to your inner ear, often as the result of a blockage such as earwaxglue ear or a build-up of fluid due to an ear infection, a perforated ear drum or a disorder of the hearing bones

It's also possible to have both these types of hearing loss. This is known as mixed hearing loss.

Some people are born with hearing loss, but most cases develop as you get older. 

Read more about causes of hearing loss.

Preventing hearing loss

It isn't always possible to prevent hearing loss if you have an underlying condition that can cause you to lose your hearing.

However, there are several things you can do to reduce the risk of hearing loss from long-term exposure to loud noise. This includes not having music or the television on at a loud volume at home and using ear-protection at loud music events or in noisy work environments.

You should also see your GP if you have signs of an ear infection, such as flu-like symptoms, severe earache or hearing loss.

Read more about preventing hearing loss.

Treating hearing loss

The way hearing loss is treated depends on the cause and how severe it is.

In cases of sensorineural hearing loss, there are several options that may help to improve a person’s ability to hear and communicate. These include:

  • digital hearing aids, available through the NHS
  • middle ear implants – surgically implanted devices suitable for some people who are unable to use hearing aids
  • cochlear implants – small hearing devices that are surgically implanted inside the inner ear for people who find that hearing aids are not powerful enough
  • lip reading or sign language - such as British Sign Language (BSL)

Conductive hearing loss is sometimes temporary and can be treated with medication or minor surgery if necessary. However, more major surgery may be required to fix the ear drum or hearing bones. If conventional hearing aids do not work, there are also some implantable devices for this type of hearing loss, such as a Bone Anchored Hearing Aids (BAHAs).

Read more about treating hearing loss.

Hearing loss: Paul's story

Paul was diagnosed with progressive hearing loss at the age of 33. Despite this, he continues to be successful in his job and was awarded Council Worker of the Year in 2007.

Media last reviewed: 14/02/2013

Next review due: 14/02/2015

How hearing works

Sound waves enter your ear and cause your eardrum to vibrate. These vibrations are passed to the three small bones (ossicles) inside your middle ear.

The ossicles amplify the vibrations and pass them on to your inner ear where tiny hair cells inside the cochlea (the coiled, spiral tube inside the inner ear) move in response to the vibrations and send a signal through a nerve called the auditory nerve to the brain.

Page last reviewed: 10/06/2013

Next review due: 10/06/2015