One of the most common types of hearing loss is known as high-frequency hearing loss. This means high-pitched sounds are harder to hear. It can affect anyone of any age, but is common in older adults with age-related hearing loss, as well as people exposed to loud noises.
Symptoms of high-frequency hearing loss
When listening to people speak, you may struggle to hear certain consonants (such as s, h or f), which are spoken at a higher pitch. As a result, speech may sound muffled, especially when you’re using the telephone, watching television, or in noisy situations. People with this type of hearing loss often say they feel like they can hear, but not understand.
You also may find it harder to hear women’s and children’s voices, as well as the sound of birds singing or devices beeping.
Diagnosing high-frequency hearing loss
Diagnosis of high-frequency hearing loss is made after a hearing test in a sound-treated booth at a hearing clinic. A hearing instrument specialist or audiologist usually will conduct the test. The results are plotted on an audiogram. If a person has high-frequency hearing loss, the audiogram will show a slope to the right, indicating a person has trouble hearing frequencies between 2,000 and 8,000 Hz.
A person may have mild, moderate, moderately severe, severe or profound hearing loss. (See degrees of hearing loss to learn hearing loss severity is measured.) In the example below, the person has moderately severe high-frequency hearing loss that is slightly worse in the right ear.
Why do I have high-frequency hearing loss?
High-frequency hearing loss occurs when the tiny hair-like sensory hearing cells in your cochlea (inner ear) are damaged. These hair cells, known as stereocilia, are responsible for translating the sounds your ears collect into electrical impulses, which your brain eventually interprets as recognizable sound.
Causes of high-frequency hearing loss
People of all ages can be affected by high-frequency hearing loss—and the reasons causing it are just as varied.
Age-related hearing loss is called presbycusis. Because this is a slow process that usually affects both ears equally, it’s often difficult to notice. One of the first signs is difficulty understanding speech in noisy environments.
Millions of Americans have hearing damage due to noise-induced hearing loss. The damage can occur as the result of a one-time, loud exposure to noise, such as a gunshot or explosion, or can occur over time with constant exposure to noise louder than 85 decibels.
Check your family history. If your relatives developed high-frequency hearing loss, you may be genetically predisposed to developing it as well.
Some types of drugs are ototoxic, meaning they are harmful to your hearing health. Some of the more common ototoxic drugs include salicylates (aspirin) in large quantities, drugs used in chemotherapy treatments and aminoglycoside antibiotics.
Meniere’s disease, which affects the inner ear, often occurs between the ages of 30-50 and may include fluctuating hearing loss, tinnitus and vertigo or intense dizziness. In severe cases, though, it typically causes low-frequency hearing loss.
In children, chronic otitis media (commonly known as a middle ear infection) can lead to hearing loss if it’s untreated.
Treatment options for high-frequency hearing loss
Example of a receiver-in-the-ear hearing
High-frequency hearing loss is usually irreversible. Fortunately, though, hearing aids work quite well for this type of hearing loss.
Typically, the best type of hearing aid for high-frequency hearing loss is what’s known as a receiver in the ear (RITE) with a dome that sits in the ear canal. This style has an open fit so it doesn’t muffle the low-frequency sounds that you still hear naturally. It can be programmed to amplify only the frequencies you struggle to hear.
While some people want to wear devices that are invisible (known as “invisible-in-the-canal” or “completely in the canal” hearing aids), they often don’t work well for this type of hearing loss, because they block low-frequency sounds.
Health risks of hearing loss
It’s important to address high-frequency hearing loss as its effects extend far beyond struggling to hear. When children have high-frequency hearing loss, it can impede speech and language development, affecting their ability to excel in school. In older adults, untreated hearing loss is associated with a higher risk of cognitive decline, social isolation, depression and injury-causing falls.
Preventing high-frequency hearing loss
High-frequency hearing loss isn’t reversible, but in some cases, it is preventable. One of the best prevention techniques is to protect your hearing against exposure to noise–especially noise louder than 85 decibels. Keep the volume turned down on your personal electronic devices and wear hearing protection whenever you anticipate being in a noisy environment, such as at the shooting range, when riding snowmobiles, or when attending a live concert or sporting event.
Inexpensive ear plugs are available at the local drugstore for occasional use. If you regularly engage in very noisy hobbies, consider investing in specialized hearing protection such as noise-cancelling headphones or custom-made earmolds, which can be purchased through many hearing healthcare professionals.