Looking at yourself, you'd never know there was a problem. You may look fine, sound fine, and, indeed, feel fine. But, unless the problem has become acute, or you're tuned into some telltale signs, you may unknowingly suffer from a problem shared by over 31 million Americans—a hearing deficit.

Does Hearing Loss Only Develop With Age?

It's true that hearing loss is more likely to develop as you grow older. By age 75, you have about a 50% chance of experiencing some hearing deficit . However, old age does not in itself cause you to lose your hearing. Hearing loss is due to a genetically inherited defect, illness, infection, or injury and can occur at any age.

Types and Causes of Hearing Loss

There are two basic types of hearing loss:

  • Conductive hearing loss
  • Sensorineural hearing loss

Conductive hearing loss results when a mechanical defect in the outer or middle ear prevents sound from reaching the inner ear. Common causes of conductive hearing loss include middle ear infections, injuries to the ear (such as a ruptured ear drum), blockage of the outer ear (usually caused by wax build-up), or a growth (such as a tumor).

Sensorineural hearing loss results from damage to the inner ear or the neural pathways that carry messages from the inner ear to the brain. Sound reaches the inner ear, but isn't properly transmitted by the ear's nerves to the brain. This type of hearing loss, commonly associated with aging, has many causes. There is no cure for inner ear damage, but treatment can help make it easier to deal with the condition. Some causes of hearing loss include:

  • Exposure to loud noise (especially over a long period of time)
  • Head injury (such as concussion)
  • Infections
  • Some cancer treatments

Some people may suffer from a combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. This is called "mixed hearing loss."

How Can I Tell If I Have a Hearing Problem?

The best way to determine if you have a hearing deficit is to be tested. Symptoms of hearing loss may include:

  • Raising the volume on your stereo or TV higher than is comfortable for others in your family
  • Asking others to repeat themselves
  • Having difficulty in hearing others, especially when there is a lot of background noise (such as at a party)
  • Having difficulty hearing movies, theatrical performances, or speeches
  • Relying on a spouse, child, or friend to repeat what others have said
  • Having ringing in your ears

If you have any of these symptoms, you probably should seek hearing testing. Don't be embarrassed about having your hearing checked. After all, you probably think nothing of getting your eyes examined. Missing out on conversation and socialization because you can't hear is just as inconvenient as poor vision.

How Often Should I be Tested?

According to Michele Hartlove, executive director of Better Hearing Institute (BHI), "Once a year is preferable, but realistically, at least every other year. And, as you age, your hearing should be checked more often." Hartlove also suggests that children should have a hearing test no later than age three. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you have your child tested for hearing loss at birth before hospital discharge, or at the latest by one month of age. Babies who do not pass screening need further evaluation and careful follow-up. Newborn hearing testing is mandatory in many states.

What Should I Do If I Suspect a Hearing Problem?

Don't ignore a hearing problem. In some cases, the problem can be easily fixed. If you have an infection or tumor as the cause of your hearing problem, waiting too long can reduce your likelihood of full and rapid recovery. And the longer you wait, the harder it will be to solve the problem with a hearing aid. If you suspect a hearing problem, schedule a check-up with a hearing specialist or otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist).

What Can I Do If I Have a Hearing Problem?

Treatment for a hearing problem depends on the cause. Blockage from wax build up can be easily removed with ear drops or ear wash. If the problem is due to an infection, medication may be prescribed. Surgery may be needed to repair some ear damage or remove growths. Finally, if the problem is neurosensory in nature, a hearing aid may be needed.

What About Hearing Aids?

Improved technology has made hearing aids smaller and more effective. Digital hearing aids can help up to 95% of those suffering from hearing loss, according to BHI.

You have the option of different styles. For example, some devices are inside a case that fits behind your ear, with an ear piece that fits inside your outer ear. Other devices fit into your external ear.

Whichever type of hearing aid is right for you or your budget, wearing a hearing aid is not a sign of aging. Many well known public figures, like Former President Clinton, have worn aids for years without affecting their public image.

How Can I Protect My Hearing?

Daily Noise

The noise pollution of modern society is an increasing cause of hearing loss. Though all noise can't be avoided, its effects can be minimized. Start by keeping your TV and stereo at a low or moderate level, especially if you're wearing headphones.

One tip: If you can't hear yourself speak without raising your voice while wearing headphones, they're probably too loud. If your work (eg, operating loud machinery) or hobbies (eg, hunting, target shooting, playing in a band) subject you to loud noise, wear ear plugs or a protective ear covering. As Hartlove points out, "You can wear earplugs at a concert and still enjoy the music."

Healthy Habits

Watch your health, but especially your blood pressure and cholesterol level . Any decrease in blood supply can damage the oxygen- and nutrient-sensitive fibers in your ear, resulting in high-frequency hearing loss.

Clean Out the Wax

Don't let inner ear wax build up. But, avoid using ear swabs inside your ear canal. Doing so can actually exacerbate the problem by pushing ear wax farther down the canal. Swabbing inside the ear canal can also cause damage to your middle or inner ear. Instead, use ear drops or an ear wash. You may want to have your doctor assist you in keeping your ear canals free of wax.

Ear Exams

Have regular ear examinations once per year. Schedule a hearing exam if you suspect you have or are developing a hearing problem.