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Deafness and being hard of hearing

Two women using sign language.

Hearing loss — also known as hearing impairment — means you can’t hear well or can’t hear at all.

“Deafness” is sometimes used to mean any hearing loss. Sometimes it is used to mean that a person can’t use hearing to understand speech, even with a hearing aid. Being “hard of hearing” usually means a less severe hearing loss.

What causes hearing loss? arrow top

Hearing loss can start when you’re born, or it can develop later. Causes of hearing loss and deafness include:

  • An illness or infection
  • Certain medicines
  • Loud sounds, like from machines or blasted music
  • Being born with ears that didn’t form well (on the inside or outside)
  • Your genes
  • A very hard blow to the head
  • Problems during birth

Could I have hearing loss? arrow top

You may have hearing loss if you:

  • Feel like people mumble
  • Often ask people to repeat what they said
  • Turn the TV up so much that other people find it too loud
  • Can't hear the doorbell

Some kinds of hearing loss are temporary, like if you just have too much wax in your ears. If you think you have hearing loss, see your doctor right away. Waiting for treatment can make the problem worse.

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How can I stop hearing loss?

Some kinds of hearing loss can be prevented. Get some “sound advice” about protecting your ears.

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Getting treatment arrow top

To find out if you have hearing loss, you likely will see an audiologist (say: aw-dee-OL-oh-jist), who is trained in testing for hearing problems. You can read more about what to expect at an audiology appointment. If you have hearing loss, you may also see an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor.

Depending on your type of hearing loss, your doctor may recommend medicine or possibly even surgery. Other options to improve hearing are things like hearing aids.

What are hearing aids and cochlear implants? arrow top

A hearing aid is a small electronic device that you wear in or behind your ear. It works like a tiny amplifier, making sounds louder. It can take time to get used to a hearing aid. You also may need to have some adjustments done to your hearing aid so it works well for you. 

A cochlear implant (say: KOK-lee-uhr IM-plant) is a tiny electronic device that is put into the part of your ear called the cochlea. It takes over the job of damaged parts of your ear. The implant is recommended only if hearing aids don’t help enough.

Getting a cochlear implant can be a big decision. It requires surgery, and it doesn’t give back all your hearing. It also takes time to learn to understand the sounds an implant makes. And some people feel that deafness doesn’t need to be “fixed.” They feel that deafness offers “deaf culture,” which connects deaf people through a shared language, history, and experiences.

How do deaf people communicate? arrow top

People with hearing loss have several options for communicating, including:

  • Speechreading, also known as lipreading. This involves watching a person’s lips and facial expressions to understand what they’re saying.
  • American Sign Language (ASL), which uses hand signs and facial expressions and is its own, complete language
  • Signed Exact English (SEE), which also uses hand signs but that is based on the English language
  • Cued speech, which involves watching a person’s mouth movements and certain handshapes

Many deaf children learn a combination of spoken and sign language.

Help for living well with hearing loss arrow top

Kids with hearing loss may go to a school for deaf students or to a regular school, where they may work with some special teachers. They may get some assistance in class, like being able to sit closer to the teacher or having a sign language interpreter. Sometimes they may have an FM loop system, which includes a microphone for the teacher and a receiver for the student.

Special tools called assistive technology, can also help with daily life. They include a special typing machine that lets you place a phone call to a hearing person. (You dial 7-1-1, and an operator reads what you type to the hearing person, then types that person’s words back to you.) If you want to catch a TV show, closed captions can turn talk into written words. And a flashing light can let you know that a doorbell is ringing.

Learn more about service animals

Did you know that service dogs aren’t just for blind people? If you can’t hear, a service dog can alert you to sounds like a fire alarm or doorbell.

If you’ve been deaf your whole life, using these tools is just natural. If you recently lost your hearing, you’ll have some adjustments to make. For example, you may need to ask friends to face you so you can read their lips. Definitely ask for the help you need. Good friends want to know what they can do, and they may not know on their own.

Check out some tips on dealing with friends and other topics if you have hearing loss.


Content last reviewed February 16, 2011
Page last updated November 20, 2014