Causes of hearing loss or deafness include noise, trauma, certain drugs and diseases. Injuries including a perforated eardrum or head injury can also cause hearing loss. Hearing loss often cannot be reversed.
Some causes of hearing damage
Once hearing is damaged, it often can’t be restored. Some of the many causes of hearing damage include:
- Noise – sound is picked up by a small, spiral-shaped organ called the cochlea that is located within the inner ear. Thousands of tiny hairs in the cochlea sense the vibration and pass the message to the brain via the cochlear nerve. These sensitive hairs can be damaged by excessive noise. Ringing in the ears (tinnitus) after exposure to loud noise is a warning sign that your ears have been overloaded.
- Drugs – certain chemicals and drugs can damage your hearing.
- Disease – some diseases, such as measles, mumps, rubella (German measles) and meningitis, can cause loss of hearing.
- Injury – including perforation of the ear drum, fractured skull or large changes in air pressure (barotrauma).
Loud noise and hearing loss
It is a mistake to believe that only noises loud enough to cause earache are capable of causing damage. The inner ear can still be harmed by noise, even when it doesn’t send you a pain signal. A rule of thumb is that if you need to shout to be heard over the noise, it’s potentially damaging. Suggestions on how to protect your ears from noise include:
- Avoid exposure to noise when you can.
- Consult with your occupational health and safety officer at work if you are concerned about noise levels in the workplace.
- When unavoidably exposed to loud noise, wear personal hearing protection such as earplugs, ear muffs or both.
- Wear earplugs in noisy environments, such as discos, rock concerts or motor racing events.
- Remember that everyday equipment, such as lawnmowers, power tools and personal stereos, may be loud enough to be damaging your ears.
Ototoxic drugs and chemicals
Ototoxicity is damage to the ear caused by drugs or chemicals. Drugs that are thought to cause hearing loss include drugs for malaria (quinine and chloroquine) and salicylates like aspirin, but the hearing loss is believed to be temporary. Certain industrial chemicals, such as solvents, are also implicated in hearing damage.
Suggestions to avoid drug-related hearing damage include:
- Discuss concerns about medications with your doctor.
- Take medications only as directed.
- See your doctor immediately if you experience unusual symptoms, such as tinnitus, while on a course of drugs.
- If your line of work involves chemicals, talk to your occupational health and safety officer about ways to reduce your exposure.
Diseases and hearing loss
Hearing loss can be caused by viral diseases including mumps, measles, pertussis (whooping cough) and rubella (German measles). These types of infections are more common in childhood, although adults who haven’t been immunised and didn’t have the diseases in childhood may catch them too.
Bacterial diseases, such as meningitis and syphilis, can also target and harm the ears. A tumour which grows on the hearing nerve, called an ‘acoustic neuroma’, can cause hearing loss and tinnitus.
Suggestions to avoid disease-related hearing damage include:
- Children should be vaccinated. See your doctor or maternal and child health nurse for further information.
- If you fall ill, see your doctor for prompt diagnosis and treatment.
- Persistent tinnitus or sudden hearing loss should be investigated by an ear specialist.
- Protect yourself from sexually transmissible diseases (STDs) by using condoms when you have sex.
- See your doctor if you suspect you may have been exposed to an STD.
Injury and hearing
The middle and inner ears are protected by the temporal bones, located at the base and sides of the skull. Head injury that involves trauma to the temporal bones can cause hearing loss. Concussion may be enough to cause hearing damage, even if the skull bones aren’t broken.
Otitic barotrauma refers to hearing damage caused by changes in air pressure on either side of the eardrum. This can be caused by descending or ascending through water too quickly – for example, while scuba diving.
Suggestions to avoid hearing damage through injury include:
- Wear a helmet while bicycling and playing contact sports.
- Wear a seat belt when travelling by car.
- Avoid falls – for example, don’t stand on the top rung of a ladder.
- Take all precautions while scuba diving.
Other suggestions on ear care
A range of conditions and events can cause temporary hearing loss. Suggestions on reducing your risk include:
- Don’t try to clean your ears by poking anything into the ear canals. You may injure the delicate skin, or impact earwax.
- Reduce the risk of ear infections by treating upper respiratory tract infections promptly.
- Avoid swimming in dirty water.
- Dry your ears after bathing.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Ear, nose and throat specialist
- Australian Hearing Tel. 131 797
- Better Hearing Australia, Victorian branch Tel. (03) 9510 1577
Things to remember
- Once hearing is damaged, it often can’t be restored. Too loud for too long is wrong.
- Avoid exposure to noise when you can and wear earplugs in noisy environments, such as discos or motor racing events.
- Certain chemicals and drugs can damage your hearing if taken over a long period of time.
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Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.