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Ears - hearing problems

conductive; sensory; hearing loss; hearing aids; sign language; hearing; ears; senses; deaf; deafness; signing; eardrum;


listeningOur senses help us to make sense of the world around us.

Hearing well helps us to learn how to speak, to understand, to communicate with others and to enjoy listening to sounds that we like to hear such as music and birds singing.

Not being able to hear sounds at all, or having difficulty hearing some or most sounds is called hearing impairment or hearing loss.

It is hard for people who do not have hearing problems to understand what it is like for those people who do have problems.

This topic may help you understand a little better.

Hearing loss 

  • Some people hear people talking and other noises in their environment clearly - normal hearing.
  • Some people hear only loud sounds (like when your ears are blocked when you have a cold).
  • Some can only hear some parts of words such as '-ome -e--l- -ear li-e -–i-' - a bit like listening to the radio when it isn't tuned in properly).

Some people cannot hear at all because their hearing system is badly damaged, or it has never worked since they were born.

There are different levels of hearing loss. Hearing loss is usually described as mild, moderate, severe or profound.

Hearing loss can be in one ear only, or in both ears.

Conductive hearing loss

This is caused by anything that makes it difficult for the sound waves to get through to the cochlea (inner ear). There is a problem in the outer ear or ear drum or middle ear.

diagram of inner earThings like:

  • wax blocking the ear canal
  • something stuck in your ear (this is one of the reasons why it is a bad idea to give small objects to small children - they might try sticking them in their ears)
  • a hole in the ear drum (this can happen sometimes after a bad ear infection, but it usually heals up)
  • fluid in the middle ear space due to an infection, so that there is no air in the middle ear. Fluid in the middle ear makes it hard for the small bones to carry sound waves from the ear drum to the cochlear. These tiny bones are called the hammer (malleus), anvil (incus) and stirrup (stapes).
  • a growth in the ear space
  • problem with the bones in the middle ear.

Any of these problems affect the quantity (how much) and sometimes the quality (how good) of the sounds coming into your hearing system.

Usually conductive hearing loss gets better by itself, but sometimes it can take a long time to get better. Sometimes antibiotics are needed or a doctor will need to remove whatever 'foreign object' some little kid has managed to jam in his ear! In some cases the person needs to see a specialist (ENT - Ear Nose and Throat)

If the middle ear fluid does not go away on its own and becomes a long term issue, ventilation tubes (grommets) may been needed. Grommets are small tubes that are inserted in the ear drum by and ENT surgeon (an anaesthetic will be needed). These act to keep the middle ear space free of fluid. This is a temporary fix.

Sensoryneural hearing loss

This is caused by dysfunction (say dis-funk-shun - which means 'not working') of the inner ear or sometimes (not often) the hearing pathways in the brain.

This could be caused by something that happened before the child was born, or a head injury, or being exposed to a lot of very loud noise - perhaps by having the music on your MP3 player or phone too loud. If someone sitting next to you can hear your music it is too loud!

 This hearing loss is permanent.

Other types of hearing difficulties

Mixed hearing loss
Sometimes a person can have both types of hearing loss (conductive and sensory neural).

Central hearing loss
Sometimes there is a problem with the part of the brain that works out what is being heard. The person may be able to hear but the brain cannot make sense of what it is hearing because it has been damaged in some way (this can happen to older people after they have a stroke).

Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) means that the brain has difficulty making sense of the sounds that it hears. The person has a normal ability to hear sounds, but has difficulty understanding what the sounds mean. 

Hearing aids

Some children can be fitted with a hearing aid.

Hearing aids are used to make the person who has difficulty hearing louder.

Nowadays hearing aids are able to be tuned to help each person's hearing problem.

  • They can make the soft sounds louder without making loud sounds louder.
  • They can 'tune out' unwanted background noise so the person can hear and talk with others, eg in a café.
  • They can be 'tuned' by the wearer to help in different situations, eg at the movies or at a shopping mall.

Hearing aids might be fitted in one ear only, or in both ears.

Some children now have FM systems. The classroom teacher (or speaker) has a special microphone, which sends her or his voice by radio waves to a receiver which might be headphones or a hearing aid. This makes it easier for the child to listen and understand, without having to put up with all the other classroom sounds being made louder.

Hearing aids make the sounds louder, but the brain may need extra help to understand what it is hearing. 

Watching the speaker's lips, facial expressions and gestures can help the brain to get the right messages.
old fashioned hearing aid
This picture shows what one of the early hearing aids looked like.

'Bionic' ear - cochlear implants

Some people who have a sensory-neural hearing loss and are have severe to profound hearing loss can be fitted with a cochlear (cok-lee-ar) implant sometimes called a 'bionic ear'.

This is a tiny electronic device which is placed into the cochlear with a receiver which is placed just behind their ear under the skin. A device that looks like a large hearing aid is attached to it on the outside of the skin. This helps them to hear some sounds but does not give them clear hearing.

Signing - Auslan

Auslan (Australian Sign Language) is the language of the deaf community in Australia. Like other sign languages, Auslan's grammar and vocabulary is quite different from English.

Today there is a growing number of courses teaching Auslan as a second language, such as a language subject offered by some secondary schools and a two-year full-time diploma at TAFE.

Helping your friend

Why does my friend sound odd when she or he talks?

  • People with a hearing impairment may have difficulties in learning to communicate by talking.
  • They may miss out some sounds when they say words, speak in the same tone of voice (monotone), or talk really loudly.
  • When you learn to talk, you copy the sounds that you can hear people making when they are talking. If you were unable to hear those sounds clearly then you would not be able to copy them clearly.

Here's what you can do to help a friend or someone in your family who has a hearing problem.

  • Stand in front of your friend when you are talking together.
  • Watch to be sure that your friend is looking at you.
  • Don't cover your lips when you are talking.
  • Stand facing the light so that your face can be seen.
  • Move away from noisy places (like places where lots of other people are talking).
  • writing a noteSpeak clearly. Do not shout or move your lips more than you usually do.
  • Use simple language.
  • If your friend doesn't understand at first, try repeating it or saying it in a different way.
  • Use your hands to point or 'draw' in the air to help your friend understand. 
  • Write it down if your friend cannot understand what you are saying.
  • Be patient. If there is a lot of noise around it will be more difficult for your friend to hear. If someone wears a hearing aid remember that it makes all the sounds around louder.
  • Check that your friend has understood any instructions (like when the teacher tells you what to do next or for homework). It might help her if the teacher or you write things down for her.
  • Learn how to use Auslan if your friend uses it. Even simple signs could help your friend, and it would be fun for you to learn too! Maybe you could learn some Auslan signs.

Remember that no one has any control over what they can hear, but everyone can choose to listen to some extent.

Some people have to work much harder at listening because their ears do not hear very well, or they may have a problem being able to concentrate.

This site could be helpful if you live in South Australia

Also Aussie Deaf Kids 

Dr Kim says

Dr Kim
"I always sound great when I'm singing in the shower - do you?"

Did you know that Ludwig Von Beethoven, one of the greatest composers of all time, started to lose his hearing when he was 26? In the last ten years of his life he composed lots of wonderful music which he never heard being played because his hearing had gone completely.

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We've provided this information to help you to understand important things about staying healthy and happy. However, if you feel sick or unhappy, it is important to tell your mum or dad, a teacher or another grown-up.


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