Hearing loss is a common condition that can affect people in many ways. Around one in six people have hearing loss, from children who are born with it to people who lose their hearing as they get older. 

It can be quite an unsettling condition to experience and can also have an impact on those around you, too. So, if you are worried about hearing loss, or think you might know someone who is, we’re here to help.

Signs of hearing loss

If you’ve noticed any signs of hearing loss in yourself, or in a loved one, it might be a good idea to check your hearing online or pop into a store for a hearing test and some expert advice. 

It can be difficult to tell if you’re losing your hearing, and in some cases, people around you might notice before you do. It can be especially tricky to recognise hearing loss symptoms if you have hearing loss in one ear but can still hear perfectly with the other.

Some of the most common signs that your hearing may have changed include: 

  • Having to ask people to repeat themselves, or misunderstanding what they say
  • Turning the volume higher than you used to on the TV, radio or on your headphones
  • Struggling to hear people on the phone

Causes of hearing loss

When we experience hearing loss, it simply means that the sounds around us aren’t being communicated properly to our brain. There are a number of reasons why this might happen, depending on the type of hearing loss that someone has. 

There are two main types of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss and conductive hearing loss. It’s also possible to have both at the same time, which is referred to as mixed hearing loss. 

Sensorineural hearing loss is caused by damage to the cells that pick up sound or to the nerves that carry information from the ear to the brain. This could include damage to the inner ear, the auditory nerve (the nerve that runs from the ear to the brain), or to the brain itself. 

Conductive hearing loss is usually caused by blockages in the ear canal or middle ear, which reduces the level of sound that can pass through to the inner ear. 

Hearing loss and the brain

Hearing is such an important part of how we understand and process the world around us, so hearing loss can have a profound effect on different areas of the brain, including mental and cognitive health. Read more about hearing loss and dementia here.

How does COVID-19 and hearing loss impact mental health?

COVID-19 was a difficult time for us all, including those who experience hearing loss. Research funded by The Deafness Support Network has shown that the pandemic is having a significant impact on the mental health of those over 70 with hearing difficulties. Most of this vulnerable group have been advised to ‘shield’, which can worsen experiences of depression, loneliness and cognitive issues ranging from function to memory difficulty.1

If you are concerned about yourself or someone you know, you can find out more information on how hearing loss impacts mental health here.

Risk factors for hearing loss

The most common causes of hearing loss are ageing and exposure to excessive noise. Some other risk factors include:

  • Trauma to the head or ear 
  • Autoimmune conditions — such as rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune inner ear disease
  • Hereditary conditions — including Alport syndrome, a genetic condition associated with hearing loss

Understanding your hearing

While your ear and all the structures of your ear process and transport the electrical impulses that make up sound, it’s your brain that actually ‘hears’ and translates this information into the things you recognise as words, music, or noise. 

That’s why hearing and hearing loss can have such far-reaching impacts. And why more and more research is being done into how hearing loss can affect our mental health, as well as how we process and store information.

Is hearing loss a disability?

Depending on the type and severity of your hearing loss, you may find that you fall into the disability category of the Equality Act 2010. Usually, this applies if you’re deaf and use British Sign Language or, in some cases, if you have a profound hearing loss that means you need to wear hearing aids. 

You may be entitled to certain benefits and grants, and your employer might be required to make adjustments to help you at work if you fall into this category, so it’s worth finding out. For example, you might be eligible for a disabled person’s railcard if you have hearing loss and wear hearing aids.

Treatment for hearing loss

Your doctor or audiologist will discuss which treatment they feel is best with you, which will depend on the cause and severity of your hearing loss. In some cases, hearing loss can get better on its own or be treated with medicine or a simple procedure. 

Hearing aids are commonly recommended as a way to manage hearing loss. If this is suggested as the best way forward for you, your audiologist will talk you through the next steps. 

Managing COVID-19 with hearing loss

Many people with a hearing impairment rely on social cues such as lip reading and facial expressions to help them communicate with others effectively. Seasonal face mask wearing and hybrid working has made it more difficult for those with hearing loss. 

Thankfully there are a number of steps you can take to make communication clearer and more comfortable for people with hearing loss. They’re simple to do and could make a world of difference to someone who is feeling isolated:

  • Wear a clear face mask. Switching to a clear mask can still help to keep you and others safe, and it will also help those with hearing loss to lip read - making them feel more comfortable when communicating with you.
  • Speak clearly. It’s important to speak clearly and also try to speak in a slightly raised voice (not a shout as this distorts the sound) when talking to someone with hearing loss to prevent sound from getting muffled behind a mask. 
  • Reduce background noise. When there are too many sounds, it can be difficult for someone with hearing loss to focus on one specific noise, so when possible moving the conversation to somewhere quieter is a big help. 
  • Attract the person’s attention. In situations where you cannot reduce background noise, it can be helpful to try to attract the person’s attention before you start to speak to them. This will allow them to know who or what sounds to listen to, and they can then pinpoint and focus on your sound.
  • Write it down. If all else fails, writing information down on your phone notes or a pad of paper can help to clarify what is being said to make sure there is no miscommunication.

Advice for people with hearing loss during COVID-19

  • Let someone know that you have a hearing impairment. As hearing loss cna be a hidden disability, many people may not know to change their speech in order to accomodate so if possible, it’s a good idea to notify the person you’re speaking to.
  • Ask someone to remove their face covering if you both feel comfortable this can make communication much easier. In case you’re unsure, you can read the full UK government guidance here.
  • Wear a badge. Alternatively, the UK government has produced official badges that can be worn or displayed on a mobile phone to notify others that they may need to remove their face covering so that you can better understand them. Print or download your badge here
  • Have your hearing aids adjusted. If you wear hearing aids, you could also ask your audiologist to help you adjust them to compensate when someone is wearing a mask, or use a remote microphone to deliver the best sound to the aids. Find your local Specsavers audiologist here.
  • Wear headphones if you work from home so you receive the sound in both ears, without interference from your surroundings (just don’t have the volume up too loud) — this will help with clarity and understanding
  • Ask people to make adjustments for virtual calls. This could include asking that people switch on their cameras to help with visual cues and lip reading, asking that whoever isn’t speaking during the call mutes their microphones to avoid distortion, making use of the chat feature for clarity and using speech to text software that transcribes verbal discussion

What technology or resources are available for those who are hard of hearing?

If you have any concerns about your hearing health, hearing aids, or you’re having trouble with communication, you can always get in touch with us for some advice.

A useful resource to keep an eye on if you’re struggling with hearing loss is the Action on Hearing Loss website, where you can find up to date information on hearing loss.

hearing check at Specsavers is free, quick, easy and totally non-invasive. If the results suggest a need for hearing aids, our qualified hearing care professionals can help you, or your friend or family member, to decide on a hearing aid that’s right for the situation. In most cases, we can even fit hearing aids on the same day as the test*.

*Subject to availability.

How the ear works

Protecting your hearing

All about hearing tests

1. Gov.uk, Exemption from face covering badge (2020). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/… [accessed: 27/01/22]