Audiologists classify hearing loss in a range of different ways. 

First is severity, which is based on the threshold below which sound is inaudible. There's also frequency, which identifies whether you have more difficulty hearing high-pitched noise or low-pitched noise. Finally, there's type. 

In broad strokes, hearing loss is either conductive, sensorineural, or mixed. Today, we're going to be talking about the former. We'll discuss what causes conductive hearing loss, how it's diagnosed, and common symptoms and treatments. 

What Is Conductive Hearing Loss?

Conductive hearing loss refers to any hearing impairment that originates in the outer or middle ear. Most commonly the result of a blockage or fluid buildup, it can also be caused by a punctured eardrum, damage to or deformation of ossicles in the middle ear, or even certain skin conditions. Depending on the cause, conductive hearing loss may be either temporary or permanent. 

What Causes Conductive Hearing Loss?

The most common cause of conductive hearing loss by far is some form of blockage in the ear canal. Typically, this is the result of cerumen impaction (excessive buildup of earwax). A middle ear infection also frequently results in conductive hearing loss, as does otosclerosis, which causes abnormal bone growth in the ear. 

Other causes of conductive hearing loss may include: 

  • Ruptured eardrum.
  • Atresia, a congenital deformity in which the ear canal fails to develop properly. 
  • Excess buildup of fluid or moisture. 
  • The presence of a tumor in the ear, also known as cholesteatoma. 
  • Eczema within the ear canal. 
  • Stenosis of the ear canal. 
  • Eustachian tube dysfunction. 

Except in severe or congenital cases, conductive hearing loss is usually relatively simple to treat—we'll discuss that more in a moment. 

What are the Symptoms of Conductive Hearing Loss?

The thing that differentiates conductive hearing loss from sensorineural hearing loss is that although it impedes your ability to hear sound, you'll only rarely experience an accompanying loss of clarity. You'll mostly feel as though something is blocking sound from reaching your ears—because that's exactly what's happening. Symptoms of conductive hearing loss may include: 

  • Muffled sound, almost like you're wearing earplugs. 
  • Sound below a certain threshold of noise is inaudible. 
  • Dizziness.
  • Pain in the outer or middle ear.
  • Redness.
  • Swelling.
  • Fluid discharge.
  • Feeling of stuffiness or fullness in the ear. 
  • Tinnitus

Most of the above symptoms start out incredibly subtle. It can be even more difficult to detect the early stages of conductive hearing loss than sensorineural or mixed hearing loss.

How is Conductive Hearing Loss Diagnosed and Treated?

As with other forms of hearing impairment, treatment of conductive hearing loss starts with a visit to the doctor. Schedule an appointment with either an audiologist or a general practitioner, and have them examine your ears. If a physical exam does not reveal any apparent cause, the doctor may ask you questions about your hearing loss or use an audiogram

The good news is typically all but the most severe cases of conductive hearing loss are treatable and reversible, provided they're diagnosed soon enough. Treatment differs greatly based on what's causing the hearing impairment. Your options may include: 

  • Flushing out debris or dissolving excess earwax
  • A round of prescribed antibiotics. 
  • A surgical procedure to remove obstructions such as tumors. 
  • Topical cream for skin conditions. 

In cases where your conductive hearing loss is either permanent or the cause has been present long enough to cause permanent damage, treatment is the same as with any other type of hearing impairment. Your audiologist may prescribe you a hearing aid or recommend that you receive cochlear implant surgery. Whether or not you follow through with these recommendations is entirely up to you. 

Ultimately, if you suspect you're suffering from conductive hearing loss, contact a medical professional. Even if you can identify the source of your hearing impairment as a blockage in your ears, do not, under any circumstances, attempt to remove this blockage yourself. Jamming fingers or other foreign objects into your ear can not only damage your ear canal, but it can also puncture your eardrum if you are careless. 

Wait to speak to a professional who can view your ear properly, and has the necessary training to know what needs to be done.

This article is created for educational and informational purposes only. The information in this article is not a substitute or a replacement for professional medical advice. For questions related to your hearing health, consult with a hearing care professional.