Many things can cause hearing loss during our lifetime. Noise damage, the natural aging process, genetic influences, and a range of other factors can affect different parts of the ear and hearing process. To take appropriate action, we need to identify where in the ear hearing loss has occurred and why.

Hearing fluctuations and changes are natural—everyone experiences this throughout their life to varying degrees. Our goal is to help you understand why and how people become impacted by hearing loss.

In this piece, we will divide the causes of hearing loss based on where in the ear hearing impairment occurs. We will also address other causes of hearing loss and their respective treatments.

Hearing Loss and the Outer and Middle Ear

Obstructions are usually the cause of hearing loss in the outer and middle ear. When the ear canal becomes blocked, sound waves can’t reach the inner ear. We refer to this as conductive hearing loss.

A common cause is an excessive amount of earwax blocking the ear canal. A professional should remove built-up earwax, as more damage can be done by attempting to remove it yourself. Small objects can also become lodged in the ear and impair hearing.

A perforated eardrum can also cause hearing loss. The eardrum lives in the middle ear and quite literally acts like a drum, amplifying and resonating sound waves as they pass through. Inserting Q-tips and other objects in the ear canal can cause eardrum perforations—which is why a professional should remove objects and wax. Sudden loud noises, such as explosions, can also be strong enough to damage the eardrum.

It’s not just obstructions that cause outer and middle ear hearing loss. It can also result from abnormal ear shapes, pressure changes, and ear infections.

The outer ear acts as a funnel to capture noises and usher them through the canal. People can be born with smaller ear canals or defects that hinder this process. Some people also experience abnormal bone growth in the outer and middle ear as they age.

Changes in pressure can happen when flying or scuba diving, for example. Whether a one-time or frequent occurrence, they too can prevent sound from travelling to the inner ear.

Ear infections can also lead to a build-up of fluid that leads to middle and outer ear hearing loss.

Many of these factors work co-dependently, with the level of impact and intensity varying between individuals. Seek help from a professional if one or more of these causes resonate with you.

Hearing Loss and the Inner Ear

Inner ear hearing loss, also known as sensorineural hearing loss, is related to the tiny hair cells that live in this part of the ear and transmit sound waves to the brain. This type of hearing loss happens when these fragile hair cells are damaged.

Natural aging is the most common cause of hearing loss in the inner ear. We are born with thousands of these tiny hair cells, but since they don’t regenerate, we are left with fewer and fewer as they die off.

Another common cause of sensorineural hearing loss is excessive noise. Sudden loud noises, such as explosions or blaring music, and gradual noise exposure over a long period can all damage the inner ear’s hair cells. Loud work environments are a prime example of where gradual noise exposure can damage hair cells.

We encourage you to be proactive and protect your inner ear. Use protective earplugs, keep the volume low when wearing headphones, and try to remove yourself from noisy environments.

Sensorineural hearing loss is gradual and unpainful, so changes in hearing may not be immediately obvious. An audiogram, or hearing test, is the best way to measure and discover the cause of hearing loss.

Other Causes of Hearing Loss

There are a few other causes of hearing loss in adults, including:

  • Genetics: A family history of hearing loss and hereditary disorders can affect hearing.
  • Autoimmune Disease: This happens when the body mistakenly attacks its own cells instead of foreign ones, which sometimes impacts the ears. See a doctor immediately if an autoimmune disease causes hearing loss.
  • Infection: Infections can affect multiple aspects of our hearing. If you or a loved one may have an ear infection, see a doctor as soon as possible to reduce the risk of permanent hearing loss. Healthcare professionals will usually prescribe antibiotics to stop the infection before it’s too late.
  • Medication: Be aware of any dangerous side effects before taking new medications as they may impair hearing.
  • Head Injury: This can affect how the brain perceives sounds.
  • Stroke: Strokes can interrupt all levels of the hearing pathway and cause hearing loss shortly before, during, or after they occur.


How to Treat Hearing Loss

Understanding the different types of hearing loss and why they happen is the best way to ensure the best possible treatment plan. Ignoring it or using inappropriate protection measures only leads to continued, and sometimes permanent, hearing loss.

Consult a specialist if you or a loved one are experiencing hearing loss. The first step is to see a general practitioner or family doctor, though walk-in clinics can provide the same care. You may be referred to a hearing specialist, such as a practitioner or audiologist, for further testing. Depending on the cause of hearing loss, you may also be sent to a doctor who specializes in otolaryngology—more commonly known as an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT)—on your path to recovery.

Hearing loss can be frustrating and scary, both for people experiencing it and those around them. But the good news is that no matter the cause of hearing loss, the ability to hear the world around us can almost always be restored to some degree if addressed swiftly and correctly.