You may think that having hearing loss would be obvious — not being able to hear the TV or the sound of a neighbor knocking on your door seems like something you’d notice right away.
But hearing loss is not always so easily perceived. It can present itself in unexpected ways (and you may even overcompensate in other ways to decrease the effects). According to Dr. Gavriel Kohlberg, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, hearing loss is really undiagnosed throughout the country, making it under-treated, too.
Some of those “regular” annoyances that you deal with day to day may actually be signs that you’re losing your hearing. Here, experts share signs that you may be experiencing hearing loss.
Having to ask people to repeat themselves.
According to Dr. Kareem Tawfik, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, one of the most common signs of hearing loss is consistently having to ask loved ones to repeat themselves during normal conversation.
Pay attention if you suspect that you’re asking loved ones to recite what they just said more often than usual. You can even ask your friends and family for their opinion if you think you may be consistently asking them to repeat what they just said.
You can’t hear background noises.
Kohlberg noted that if you’re having trouble hearing environmental noises, you’ll likely want to get your hearing checked.
Environmental noises can include things like birds chirping, leaves rustling and the beep from kitchen appliances, he said.
Take notice if you struggle to hear some expected background noises on your next walk through nature or the next time you’re doing things around the house.
You experience a ringing in your ears.
“A lot of people with hearing loss also have a condition called tinnitus,” Tawfik said.
Tinnitus is commonly associated with ringing in the ears, but it can also be a buzzing in the ears or “any number of different sounds that are not actually present in the environment but occur as the brain’s response to a deprivation of sound from the ears.”
Hearing loss is the most common reason people have tinnitus, and tinnitus is a prevalent condition — more than 50 million people in the U.S. have it, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
You find yourself relying on lip-reading.
Whether they know it or not, many people who have hearing loss rely on lip-reading to understand what those around them are saying.
If you seem to have trouble understanding someone when they aren’t facing you (and you can’t see their lips) or when they’re wearing a mask, you may want to go get a hearing test.
Tawfik noted that many of his patients only noticed their hearing loss because of mask-wearing during the height of the pandemic.
You struggle to hear in noisy environments.
“The first environment people notice hearing difficulty is in noisy environments,” Tawfik said. Think crowded restaurants, bars or cocktail parties.
He noted that unlike in a quiet space when you’re listening to someone one on one, these busy places are considered complex listening environments. They’ll immediately put a spotlight on any difficulty someone is having with their hearing.
In these places, it’s also harder to rely on lip-reading, which, as mentioned above, is something many people with hearing loss rely on.
Take particular note if your hearing loss is worse in one ear.
According to Tawfik, if your hearing loss is worse in one ear, it may be a sign of a different problem. “Typically, with age-related hearing loss and noise-induced hearing loss, we expect to see hearing loss that’s affecting both ears symmetrically,” he said. “So when it doesn’t fit that pattern we start to wonder if there’s something else going on.”
He noted that hearing loss in one ear could be a sign of a benign tumor. Additionally, any fluctuating hearing loss (hearing that goes in and out) or hearing loss that is associated with dizziness could be a sign of a chronic condition of the inner ear, he added.
In these cases, you’ll want to contact a doctor as soon as possible so they can start treatment.
Is your hearing loss sudden?
“Rarely [do] people have a sudden loss of hearing in one or both ears,” Kohlberg said. Generally, hearing loss is gradual.
When hearing loss is sudden, you should have your hearing checked within two weeks, he noted. Sudden hearing loss can be treated, but only when caught early.
Take precautions to protect your ears.
“The most common reason to have hearing loss is because of age-related hearing loss,” Tawfik said. But there are also genetic and environmental factors that can contribute to the development of the condition.
People who have certain genetic markers and who have a history of exposure to loud noise (like musicians or some kinds of construction workers) are at an increased risk of hearing loss over time, which makes it crucial for those people (and all of us, actually) to “limit the duration of exposure to loud noise,” he said.
It’s important that people prevent hearing loss by using noise protection when they know they are going to be in loud environments, Tawfik added.
This can mean investing in earplugs, getting over-the-ear muffs, or, if you’re someone who is exposed to loud noises often, you “can also consider getting custom ear molds which probably do the best job of blocking out sound,” Tawfik said. As with any condition, it’s easier to prevent than treat.
Lastly, don’t discount your symptoms.
Kohlberg said that roughly 30 million people throughout the country have some kind of hearing loss — and it largely affects older people.
Both he and Tawfik stressed that if you think you’re losing your hearing, it’s important to go to an audiologist for a hearing test. They can determine a plan specifically for you, whether that means getting hearing aids, cochlear implants or something else.