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Hearing impairment occurs when there’s a problem with or damage to one or more parts of the ear.
The degree of hearing impairment can vary widely from person to person. Some people have partial hearing loss, meaning that the ear can pick up some sounds; others have complete hearing loss, meaning that the ear cannot hear at all (people with complete hearing loss are considered deaf). In some types of hearing loss, a person can have much more trouble when there is background noise. One or both ears may be affected, and the impairment may be worse in one ear than in the other.
The timing of the hearing loss can vary, too. Congenital hearing loss is present at birth. Acquired hearing loss happens later in life — during childhood, the teen years, or in adulthood — and it can be sudden or progressive (happening slowly over time).
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about 37.5 million American people aged 18 and over are deaf or hearing impaired. That’s about 15 out of every 100 people. Another 26 million are exposed to hazardous noise levels on a regular basis. Hearing loss is also the most common birth anomaly.
The most common cause of conductive hearing loss in kids and teens is otitis (pronounced: o-tie-tus) media, which is the medical term for an ear infection that affects the middle ear. Ear infections cause a buildup of fluid or pus behind the eardrum, which can block the transmission of sound. Even after the infection gets better, fluid might stay in the middle ear for weeks or even months, causing difficulty hearing.
But this fluid is usually temporary, and whether it goes away on its own (which is usually the case) or with the help of medications, once it’s gone a person’s hearing typically returns to normal. Blockages in the ear, such as a foreign object, impacted earwax or dirt, or fluid due to colds and allergies, can also cause conductive hearing loss.
People also get conductive hearing loss when key parts of the ear — the eardrum, ear canal, or ossicles — are damaged. For example, a tear or hole in the eardrum can interfere with its ability to vibrate properly. Causes of this damage may include inserting an object such as a cotton swab too far into the ear, a sudden explosion or other loud noise, a sudden change in air pressure, a head injury, or repeated ear infections.
Sensorineural hearing impairment results from problems with or damage to the inner ear or the auditory nerve. Its causes include: