Why Can I Hear Soft Sounds But Can't Understand Conversations?

HEARING TIPS

Woman struggling to hear her husband while camping.

Hearing loss problems aren’t always resolved by turning up the volume. Consider this: Lots of people are capable of hearing really soft sounds, but can’t make out conversations. That’s because hearing loss is often irregular. Certain frequencies are muted while you can hear others without any problem.

Types of Hearing Loss

  • Conductive hearing loss happens when the ear has internal mechanical issues. It may be a result of too much earwax buildup or due to an ear infection or a congenital structural issue. In many cases, hearing specialists can manage the underlying condition to improve your hearing, and if required, recommend hearing aids to fill in for any remaining hearing loss.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss is more common and caused by problems with the tiny hairs, or cilia, in the inner ear. When sound is perceived, it moves these hairs which send chemical messages to the auditory nerve to be sent to the brain for interpretation. These fragile hairs do not regenerate when damaged or destroyed. This is why sensorineural hearing loss is often a result of the normal process of aging. Things like exposure to loud noise, particular medications, and underlying health conditions can also bring about sensorineural hearing loss.

Symptoms of Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Asking people to speak up when they talk to you will help to some degree, but it won’t solve your hearing issues. People who have sensorineural hearing loss have difficulty making out certain sounds, like consonants in speech. This could lead somebody with hearing loss to the mistaken conclusion that people around them are mumbling when in fact, they’re talking clearly.

When somebody is dealing with hearing loss, the frequency of consonants typically makes them difficult to distinguish. Pitch is measured in hertz (Hz), and the majority of consonants register in our ears at a higher pitch than other sounds. For instance, a short “o” registers at 250 to 1,000 Hz, depending on the voice of the person talking. But consonants like “f” or “s” will be anywhere from 1,500 to 6,000 hertz. Because of damage to the inner ear, these higher pitches are hard to hear for people who have sensorineural hearing loss.

This is why simply speaking louder doesn’t always help. It’s not going to help much when someone talks louder if you don’t hear some of the letters in a word like “shift”.

How Can Hearing Aids Help?

Hearing aids have a component that goes in the ear, so sounds get to your auditory system without the interference you would typically hear in your environment. Also, the frequencies you can’t hear are boosted and mixed with the sounds you are able to hear in a balanced way. This makes what you hear a lot more clear. Modern hearing aids also make it easier to understand speech by blocking some of the unwanted background noise.

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