How to describe hearing loss

If you want to understand your own hearing loss, or anyone else’s hearing, there are a number of questions you need to consider.

How severe is your hearing loss?

This is the simplest and most frequently used way of describing a hearing loss. Audiologists often use the categories ‘mild, moderate, severe, and profound’.

By and large, if you have a mild hearing loss you will be able to hear a conversation without much struggle if you’re in a quiet room near the person talking, as long as there is little background noise, but you may struggle when louder background noise is present.

If you have a severe to profound hearing loss you will be unable to hear what anyone is saying under almost most circumstances.

However, there is much more you need to know before you can understand your hearing fully, as it is not simply about hearing individual sounds and tones.

What type of sound can you hear?

The most common type of hearing loss is a ‘high-frequency’ hearing loss frequently found in older people, called presbyacusis. This makes speech muffled and harder to follow, you hear the words but cannot always understand.

You can also have a low frequency hearing loss; you may have lost some of the mid frequencies; or you may have an equal loss across all the frequencies.

Some people are particularly sensitive to loud sounds.

Each of these will have different effects on how hard you find it to follow speech, and how comfortable you feel in different sound situations.

Your audiologist may use the terms conductive, sensory, sensorineural, or mixed when describing your hearing. These terms indicate which part of your auditory pathway is damaged, and understanding them can help you understand why you hear sounds as you do, and the type of help you can expect from a hearing aid.

Is your hearing the same all the time?

Your hearing may be exactly the same every day and at all times during the day, or it may fluctuate during the day or from week to week. A fluctuating hearing loss can be quite bewildering if you don’t realise that for reasons outside your control you can hear better on some occasions (this is something other people may find hard to understand).

Do you also have tinnitus?

Tinnitus (noises you can hear that are not caused by sounds in the outside world) can make it much harder to hear with any given level of hearing loss. If your tinnitus changes from time to time it will mean you can sometimes hear better on some occasions, even though your hearing remains the same, because the sound of the tinnitus will block out what you are trying to listen to.

Tinnitus can also disturb your sleep or make it difficult for you to concentrate. Please visit our pages on tinnitus for more information.

How old were you when your hearing began to change?

If your hearing loss began when you were a baby, you will experience your remaining hearing differently than if you began to lose your hearing much later in life. Your voice may be different, and your emotional relationship with your hearing may be different. If you have been accustomed to hearing all your life and then it changes, there are some difficult adjustments to make.

How quickly did your hearing change?

Don’t delay if you experience a sudden or very rapid loss of hearing. It’s considered a medical emergency and you should seek urgent care at the Accident & Emergency department of your nearest hospital where you should be treated by an ENT doctor. Visit our page on sudden hearing loss.

Much more commonly, the change in hearing takes place over a long period of time, sometimes acquired over many, many years. Under the circumstances, you may find it difficult to know exactly when it started and it can take some time before you realise it is happening. Often, the people around you will notice it before you do for the obvious reason that if you don’t hear something, you usually don’t know you haven’t heard it.