A risk factor is something that increases your likelihood of getting a disease or condition.
It is possible to develop hearing loss with or without the risk factors listed below. However, the more risk factors you have, the greater your likelihood of developing hearing loss. If you have a number of risk factors, ask your healthcare provider what you can do to reduce your risk.
Risk factors for hearing loss include:
With the natural aging process comes wear and tear on the ears that can affect the ability to hear soft sounds and understand speech at normal conversation levels. Loss of hearing from this process is called presbycusis. It occurs slowly over time and appears to run in families.
Premature Birth and Low Birth Weight
Premature birth and low birth weight are risk factors for developing hearing loss. Low birth weight has an especially strong effect among full-term children. Total reduction in fetal growth and/or reduced growth speed increase the risk. Birth complications such as asphyxia, intracranial hemorrhage, and excessive jaundice also increase the risk.
There are some genetic disorders that increase the risk for hearing loss. For example, otosclerosis occurs when abnormal new bones form in the inner ear, which then affect proper functioning of other parts of the ear. Usher syndrome is a disorder that affects both hearing and vision in children. Any conditions associated with craniofacial abnormalities also increase the risk of hearing loss.
Exposure to Loud Noise
Exposure to loud noise is a major cause of and risk factor for hearing loss. Loud sounds can cause damage to the hearing nerve and hair cells in the inner ear. The loss can be caused by a single exposure to loud noise, such as an explosion, or by repeated exposure to loud sounds over a period of time, such as loud machinery in a workplace or loud music.
Loud noise can occur on the job from construction, factory, farm, or airport work, especially with the use of heavy equipment. Some recreational activities also involve loud noise that can lead to hearing loss, such as loud music, shooting guns, and the engines of motorcycles and snowmobiles. Harmful noises in the home can come from equipment such as vacuum cleaners, gas-powered lawn mowers, and shop tools.
Ear protection is somewhat effective in reducing the risk of hearing loss.
Use of Certain Medications
Some antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs can damage the ear. High doses of aspirin can increase the risk of temporary hearing loss or ringing in the ear.
Smoking and Exposure to Secondhand Smoke
Smoking may act as a toxin, harm blood flow to the cochlea, or change blood consistency. Decreasing or quitting smoking may prevent or delay age-related hearing loss.
Repeated or Poorly Treated Ear Infections
Recurrent ear infections in childhood, especially those that are not treated properly, may cause irreversible damage to the middle ear and the cochlea and may lead to hearing impairments later in life.
Risk for hearing loss is increased by diseases that result in blocked blood flow, including atherosclerosis, problems with blood clots, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and collagen vascular diseases. Illnesses that lead to injury through infection, such as meningitis, may harm the cochlea. Meniere’s disease, which involves changes in the fluid in the inner ear, can lead to hearing loss. Tumors, such as acoustic neuroma, and neurologic diseases also increase the risk of hearing loss.
Radiation therapy is a common treatment for head and neck cancer. Radiation in the region of the ears can lead to damage of the inner ear and permanent hearing loss.
Trauma and brain injury increase the risk of hearing loss.
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Noise and hearing protection. American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery website. Available at: http://www.entnet.org/content/noise-and-hearing-protection. Accessed August 17, 2016.
Noise-induced hearing loss. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders website. Available at: http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing/pages/noise.aspx. Updated May 15, 2015. Accessed August 17, 2016.
Palmer KT, Griffin MJ, et al. Cigarette smoking, occupational exposure to noise, and self reported hearing difficulties. Occup Environ Med. 2004;61(4):340-344.
Last reviewed September 2017 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 9/17/2014