Do you turn up the volume on the TV? Have trouble hearing children’s voices? Ask friends and family members to repeat themselves?
If the answer is yes to any of those questions, it’s time to get your hearing checked.
Before you panic, remember that treating your hearing loss may be as simple as cleaning out built-up wax in your ear canal. Even if you need hearing aids, they are smaller and smarter than ever before and can help you participate more fully in your relationships and other aspects of your life.
“There’s unfortunately still a stigma associated with hearing loss,” says Nicholas Reed, Au.D., an audiologist and hearing researcher at Johns Hopkins University. He notes that people with hearing loss wait an average of eight years to get help. "The first step is simply getting out the door.”
Here's what to do if you think you might have hearing loss.
1. Start with your family doctor.
Your family physician can check for wax buildup and discuss possible medical causes of your hearing loss (some insurance plans require a medical referral from a doctor to see an audiologist). But if that visit doesn’t solve your problem, your next stop should be to an audiologist, a practitioner who specializes in hearing, says Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America. “If your family doctor says, ‘There’s nothing that can be done; it’s just a part of getting older,’ don’t believe it,” she says. “Hearing aids today are very sophisticated, and many issues can be helped with technology.”
2. Make an appointment with an audiologist.
Ask friends who wear hearing aids to recommend an audiologist, or check the Hearing Loss Association’s searchable database at www.hearingloss.org. Look for one who is licensed and certified and who works with different brands of hearing aids, rather than just one. Keep in mind that there’s a difference between an audiologist — a trained health care professional with at least a master’s degree — and a hearing aid or hearing instrument dispenser, who does hearing tests primarily for the purpose of selling hearing aids.
3. Talk about treatment options.
The audiologist will ask questions about your hearing loss and lifestyle, check for physical problems and do a comprehensive hearing test. The consultation may include a pressure test, to check your eardrum; a tone test, to see how you hear different pitches; and a speech test, in which you repeat sounds. Afterward, the audiologist will go over your results using an audiogram (a visual representation of your hearing) and recommend a course of action. If the audiologist believes that your hearing loss can be surgically corrected, you’ll be referred to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor.
4. Decide whether to try a hearing aid.
If your audiologist recommends a hearing aid, you don’t have to get one right away, Kelley says. “It’s OK to go home, think it over and come back to talk about hearing aids after you’ve had time to process the diagnosis,” she says. When you’re ready, ask your audiologist about the pros and cons of different types of hearing aids. Many people think they want the smallest device possible, but slightly larger ones may have Bluetooth that can help with watching TV and making phone calls, or a telecoil that can be helpful at movie theaters, conference centers and churches. You can also discuss over-the-counter products that provide hearing enhancement, such as earbuds that work with smartphone apps or a listening device called a Pocket Talker.
5. Give yourself time to adjust.
Unlike glasses, which correct your vision immediately, hearing aids frequently don't work perfectly right away. “You often need adjustments to get the full benefit,” says Deborah Berndtson, Au.D., an audiologist at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “Take note of what’s working and what’s not, and go back to your audiologist a few times for tuning.” It will also take your brain time to adapt to hearing new sounds and background noises, she says. Most states require a mandatory 30-day trial period for hearing aids; some devices have even longer trial periods.
6. Find support.
If you’re the only one in your family or circle of friends with hearing loss, ask your audiologist about local support groups, or search online for a local chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America. “Learning that you have hearing loss can come as a big shock,” Kelley says. “It’s important to connect with someone who understands what you’re going through.”
Test your hearing at the National Hearing Test.