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hearing impairment

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An impairment means there is a change in the way a certain body part works that is different from usual. The impairment may not even be noticeable or have any effect on how the person functions. Or the impairment may be obvious and may make it difficult or impossible for the person to do certain activities. A hearing impairment means there is a change in what a person hears. This can range from having difficulty hearing certain sounds to complete deafness, or loss of all hearing.

What is the information for this topic?
How does hearing impairment happen?

Hearing impairment can be congenital, meaning the person is born with the impairment, or can be acquired later in life. Damage to the hearing nerves, infections, exposure to loud sounds, or exposure to toxic substances can all cause impaired hearing. Sometimes, a simple build-up of normal earwax can impair hearing. Children may push a foreign object into the ear canal. As people get older, it becomes harder to hear certain frequencies, such as high-pitched sounds. ringing in the ears, or tinnitus, may make it difficult to hear sounds. People with head injuries may become very sensitive to sounds and find that noise is painful to the ears.

Who might get this impairment?

Hearing impairment can occur at any age, even before birth. Anyone can develop a hearing impairment during his or her lifetime.

Are there ways to lessen the impairment?

It is possible to reduce the risk of acquiring a hearing impairment. Avoiding prolonged and repeated loud sounds is important. Keeping music volume down in the car and at home will also help reduce hearing impairment. People who must be in noisy places, such as those who work near jackhammers or airplanes, or at a shooting range, should wear ear protection to protect against occupational hearing loss. Simple earplugs and specially designed ear protectors are effective. People should tell their doctors if they develop Ringing in the ears or difficulty hearing any sounds. Pregnant women should get antenatal care to help prevent hearing problems in the baby.

After a hearing impairment has occurred, there may be ways to improve the hearing. Hearing aids help certain types of hearing loss. Surgery may repair damaged ear structures and nerves. People can learn lip reading, which helps them to understand words they cannot hear clearly. Specially trained dogs can alert the person to sounds or activity. An audiologist is a specialist in treating hearing impairments. The audiologist works closely with a doctor who also specialises in ears to find the best approach to treatment.

How do people with this impairment function?

It is possible to live a nearly normal lifestyle with a hearing impairment. Many people have ways to compensate, such as hearing aids or lip reading, so that they can still participate in activities. It is even possible to drive a vehicle. For safety, people with hearing impairments may need other signals to replace sounds they cannot hear. For example, a telephone can be hooked up to a light that flashes when it rings. Extra care must be taken wherever sounds are used as safety warnings. For example, construction vehicles make a beeping sound when backing up. A person with a hearing impairment will either need some other signal or the assistance of a person who can hear well.

It's important to treat a person with a hearing impairment normally. One should look at the person when speaking, and be sure to speak clearly. Hands and long hair should be kept away from the face because they block the person's view for lip reading. Faces should be well lighted and not in shadow, and people should avoid eating or chewing gum while talking. The person may ask others to spell or write words. Gestures often help clarify the message. The person with a hearing impairment can tell others the best way to make it easier to communicate. Hearing impairment does not, of course, affect intelligence. The person is still able to think and make decisions. Most people with hearing impairment can speak.

Author: Karen Preston, PHN, MS, CRRN
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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