Hearing loss

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Hearing loss is a common problem where we find it more difficult to hear the sounds and voices around us. Find out more about the first signs of hearing loss and how it’s treated.

What is hearing loss?

Hearing loss is a common problem, especially as we age. There are lots of different causes and most of the time it’s possible to treat it. 

What are the symptoms of hearing loss?

While hearing loss can be a symptom on its own, it’s also associated with other symptoms. The most common signs of hearing loss are:

  • Difficulty hearing clearly what other people are saying, which can lead to misunderstanding, especially in crowded places

  • Asking people to repeat themselves a lot

  • Listening to music and TV at a higher volume than other people

  • Struggling to hear properly while on the phone

  • Finding it difficult to keep up with conversations

  • Getting tired from concentrating or trying hard to listen

  • Some people will also get ringing or buzzing in their ears, called tinnitus

  • Falling behind at school

How common is hearing loss?

Hearing loss is a common problem that gets worse as we get older. In the UK, around 2 in 5 people over 50 have some kind of hearing problem. It’s much less common in kids – only 1 in 100 children will have hearing loss.

What causes hearing loss?

When sound waves hit our ears, they cause a thin layer of skin inside the ear to vibrate like a drum. This vibration runs through a chain of small bones called ossicles to your hearing organ, the cochlea. The cochlea has lots of small hairs that feel the vibration and send a message to the brain through the cochlear nerve. 

There are 3 types of hearing loss depending on what part of the process of hearing is damaged:

  • Conductive – a problem transmitting the sound to the cochlea. This could be caused by a buildup of earwax, an object stuck in the ear, a problem with the ossicles, or an infection of the inside of the ear

  • Sensorineural – a problem with sending the signal from the cochlea to the brain. This can be because of a problem with the hairs in the cochlea or because there’s a problem with the nerve that sends the signal to the brain. Being exposed to loud noises repeatedly can cause damage to these organs and lead to hearing loss. This can also happen as we age, as wear and tear over time can lead to unavoidable hearing loss

  • Mixed – there are problems both before and at the cochlea

How is hearing loss diagnosed?

When you see a GP, they will ask you a few questions about your symptoms. They may also have a look in your ears with the help of an otoscope, which is a device that goes in your ear.

The GP may run a few tests to see if your hearing loss is conductive or sensorineural. They may use a tuning fork to assess how clearly you can hear sound. 

If they are still concerned, they may want to refer you to an ENT doctor or a hearing clinic for other, more specialised, tests.

How is hearing loss treated?

If you have hearing loss, there are several treatments that may help, although it does depend on the cause:

  • Cleaning of the ear canal to make sure there is nothing stopping the sound from passing through your ear

  • If you have an infection, a GP may recommend antibiotics as ear drops or tablets

If these do not help with the problem or if there is no infection or blockage, you may get referred to an ENT specialist doctor. Other options for treatment may include:

  • Surgery may be needed in more complicated cases

  • You may be advised to be fitted with a bone-conduction or bone-implanted hearing aid, which sends the sound waves straight to the cochlea

  • A cochlear implant is another procedure that can be done, where your cochlea is taken out and replaced with an implant to help with hearing. Make sure to talk to your specialist about the pros and cons of these options first

How can I treat hearing loss myself?

There are also other things that may help you if you have hearing loss:

  • Make sure to reduce background noise or avoid being too close to it, especially if somewhere like a nightclub or concert

  • Wear ear protection in loud places

  • Avoid putting anything in your ears, like fingers or cotton buds, as these can cause damage

  • Face people when they are talking to you to see their mouth and facial expressions, as lip reading is a good way to keep up with conversations

  • Don’t be afraid to ask people to speak more slowly or repeat themselves

When should I speak to a doctor?

You should immediately seek help if:

  • You are getting more hearing loss or tinnitus in one ear

  • Sudden hearing loss, which has happened within 72 hours and is getting rapidly worse

  • You get earache and discharge from the ear

  • You keep getting ear infections

  • Your hearing loss fluctuates

  • Everyday sounds are starting to cause you distress and are affecting your day-to-day activities

  • You have had Covid-19 recently

How can Livi help? 

A Livi doctor can talk to you about your symptoms and give you advice on the next best steps.

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi