Public perception of deafness can be simplistic: people are either born without this sense or lose it slowly as they age. But, as with most things, the truth about hearing loss and its causes is a lot more complex than the stereotypes.
Conductive deafness, or preexisting conditions
Conductive deafness is the result of flaws that are likely to be present from birth. These malformations in the outer or middle ear can be caused by inherited birth defects, infections, or developmental problems. However, infections that cause this aren’t limited to fetuses. Strep throat and other upper respiratory tract illnesses can cause hearing loss if enough pus builds up in the middle ear to actually rupture the eardrum. Inherited conditions can result in a person losing their hearing much later in life, as well. New growth of spongier bone over the stirrup bone prevents the stirrup from vibrating when the sound reaches it.
Sensorineural hearing loss and what we can do to prevent it
Damage to the inner ear, the auditory nerve that carries sound messages to the brain, or the hearing center of the brain results in sensorineural deafness. These possible causes are far more numerous and varied than those of conductive hearing loss, but on the upside, many of them are preventable.
Many, but not all.
Sensory deafness may be a symptom of infections like meningitis and mumps, or more serious illnesses like multiple sclerosis, final stage syphilis, and Parkinson’s disease. Hearing loss in an infant may be the result of head trauma during birth or a secondary symptom of the mother’s rubella infection. And then there is the granddaddy (pun intended) of hearing loss: age. Degeneration of our inner ear structure as we age is so common a hearing loss cause that half of all people over 75 admit to some level of deafness.
Luckily we can prevent a great deal of inner ear trauma that causes hearing loss by avoiding some risky (for our ears) situations.
First, maintain and be kind to your ears. The build-up of ear wax can eventually block the movement of soundwaves but don’t get overzealous with the Q-tips because going too deep into the ear canal and rupturing the eardrum will cause permanent damage.
Speaking of drums, prolonged exposure to loud music can definitely damage the inner ear, as can short, loud blasts of noise. For instance, if someone were to blow a trumpet directly into their band director’s unprotected ear. Other high-risk occupations for hearing loss include construction, farming, aviation, military and police, factory work, and carpentry.
Of course, damaging decibel levels aren’t limited to exposure on the job; prolonged recreational noise can result in some level of deafness as well. Motorcycle noise isn’t safe for more than four unprotected hours, snowmobiling can be dangerous after two, and any unprotected exposure to gunfire or fireworks can result in hearing loss.