How Doctors Diagnose Hearing Loss

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Hearing Test

Hearing loss is common in people of all ages. Close to 50 million people in the United States—about 1 in 5 adults and teens—have some trouble hearing. In many cases, hearing loss occurs gradually, so you may not be aware it is happening until you can’t hear certain sounds. If you think you or a family member has hearing loss, it’s important to have it checked. The type of treatment you need will depend on what’s causing your hearing loss.

Types of Hearing Loss Specialists

If you suspect hearing loss, talk with your primary care doctor. He or she may test your hearing or refer you to a hearing specialist. These include:

  • Audiologists: Healthcare providers with training in measuring hearing loss and identifying the type of hearing loss you have. Some audiologists can also fit hearing aids.

  • Otolaryngologists: Doctors who specialize in problems with the ear, nose and throat. Some people call these doctors ENTs to reflect their area of expertise. They can find out what’s causing your hearing loss and help you find treatment options.

You can search for an audiologist or ENT specialist in your local area.

Types of Hearing Tests

There are several tests that can help diagnose hearing loss. Your doctor or audiologist will decide which type of test is best for you or your child. They include:

  • Auditory brainstem response (ABR): Measures the level of hearing in the inner ear while you’re sleeping or resting quietly. It can also help find hearing problems due to problems in the brain. ABR involves placing electrodes on your head that measure how your brain waves respond to sound.

  • Middle ear tests: Measure how well the middle ear works. They are often useful in children ages 3 to 5, who are more likely to have problems with the middle ear. These tests can help find problems, such as wax blockage, a perforation in the eardrum, a stiff eardrum, or an eardrum that moves too much.

  • Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: Is often part of a hearing screening for newborns, but adults sometimes need it. It measures soft sounds that the outer hair cells of the inner ear make in response to sound. These sounds are called emissions. People with normal hearing produce these emissions while those with hearing loss do not. The test involves inserting a small probe into the ear canal.

  • Pure-tone testing: Measures the faintest pitches you can hear from low to high. In most cases, you will wear earphones so the doctor or audiologist can measure the results for each ear. You may need to press a button or raise a finger if you hear the sound. For young children, testing may take place in a sound booth or involve looking toward the source of a sound or performing a certain activity when they hear a sound, such as placing a peg in a hole.

  • Speech testing: Can be useful in adults and older children. It measures the softest speech you can hear at least half of the time. It may also test how many individual words you can hear and repeat back. This test may take place in quiet and noisy environments to see how background noise affects your hearing.

Degree of Hearing Loss

Your doctor or audiologist will use the results of your hearing tests to determine your degree of hearing loss. Specialists usually classify hearing loss from mild to profound:

  • Mild—You may have a hard time hearing quieter sounds, like birds chirping.
  • Moderate—You may not be able to hear people talking.
  • Severe—You may have a hard time hearing louder sounds like a phone ringing or a piano playing.
  • Profound—You may not hear even the loudest sounds, such as an airplane or gunfire.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Sep 13
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.