What is high frequency hearing loss?

High frequency hearing loss is one of the most common types of hearing loss, and refers to the difficulty sufferers have in hearing high-pitched sounds (those higher than 2,000 Hertz).

While it can affect anyone, it usually affects older adults who are suffering from age-related hearing loss (presbycusis), as well as people who work in noisy environments (particularly if they’re frequently exposed to loud noises).

High frequency hearing loss means that you might have difficulty understanding speech, particularly when people talk quickly, as well as differentiating between different sounds (especially in loud areas or places with a lot of background noise).

You might also find it hard to hear:
  • Alerts on your phone
  • Doorbells
  • Children’s voices
  • Women’s voices
  • Birdsong

High frequency hearing loss symptoms

While you can still hear conversations, you may find it hard to understand what’s being said, and difficulty hearing is the main symptom of high frequency hearing loss. 

As well as struggling to hear higher pitched sounds such as those outlined above, you might also find that you struggle to hear consonant sounds (particularly unvoiced consonants, like f, t, s, th and p) as these are spoken at a higher pitch than vowel sounds.

Because of this, you may find that:

  • Speech is muffled
  • You struggle to use the phone
  • You have difficulty hearing the TV
  • It’s hard to hear conversations in noisy environments

Where children and younger people are affected by high frequency hearing loss, they may struggle to hear clearly in classrooms, and - particularly in the case of younger children - they might show problems with speech and language development.

High frequency hearing loss causes

High frequency hearing loss happens when the hairs in your inner ear are damaged. These cells transmit sounds to the brain via the auditory nerve, and any loss or damage to these cells can impact this process.

It can affect people of all ages, and it can have a range of causes, including:

Ageing
Hearing loss is a natural part of ageing, and while it can be a gradual process that you often don’t notice, as you get older you may find it harder to hear conversations in noisy environments, or find yourself turning up the volume on the TV.

Family history
If members of your family have suffered from high frequency hearing loss, you may be genetically predisposed to the condition, so it’s always worth speaking to your relatives about any hearing loss.

Loud noises
Working in a noisy environment, or being exposed to loud noises for extended periods, can affect your hearing.

Diseases
Infections in the middle ear, such as otitis media, can cause a build-up of fluid that can result in temporary hearing loss. If the infection is severe, it can cause permanent damage to your middle ear or eardrum, resulting in high frequency hearing loss.
Ménière’s disease, an infection of the inner ear, can cause tinnitus and vertigo, as well as hearing loss, and can eventually lead to permanent hearing loss.

Tumours
Certain benign tumours can develop on your auditory nerve, causing pressure that can result in tinnitus, balance issues and hearing loss.

Medication
Some medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, some antibiotics and some medications used to treat cancer can harm the inner ear and auditory nerve, leading to high frequency hearing loss.

If you’re experiencing high frequency hearing loss -  or any type of hearing loss - it’s important to speak to your doctor in the first instance. They’ll be able to carry out a full examination and determine any underlying cause.

You can also speak to an audiologist. They’ll assess the extent of your hearing loss and suggest the best ways to manage it.

High frequency hearing loss treatment

Initially, treatment may cover resolving any underlying cause of your high frequency hearing loss, such as curing the infection or changing your medication, and your doctor will be best placed to advise on this.

Where the loss is caused by ageing, genetic factors or exposure to noise, or where the initial cause has severely affected or damaged your middle or inner ear, hearing aids are the best course of treatment. You’ll need a hearing test to determine the type and extent of hearing loss you’re experiencing before being fitted for a hearing aid.

Your audiologist may recommend a hearing aid known as RITE (receiver in the ear), which is the best type of hearing aid for high frequency hearing loss. Part of the hearing aid sits in your ear canal and amplifies the pitches and frequencies you can’t hear. And because of the way it’s designed, it doesn’t interfere with or inadvertently amplify low frequency sounds.  

Frequently asked questions

Can high frequency hearing loss be reversed?

Unfortunately, high frequency hearing loss is usually irreversible. Even though the underlying cause can be treated in some instances, once the hair cells in your inner ear are damaged or lost, your hearing is permanently affected.

However, it can be prevented:

  • Always protect your hearing when you’re exposed to high-pitched or loud noise, particularly where it’s louder than 85 decibels
  • Turn the volume down on electronic devices, especially when you’re wearing headphones
  • Use hearing protection - such as ear plugs - when you’re in noisy environments

It also helps to have regular hearing tests, particularly as you get older, so that any problems or hearing loss can be spotted and managed quickly.

Does high frequency hearing loss get worse over time?
High frequency hearing loss is a natural part of the ageing process, and declines gradually. It’s also a consequence of exposure to high-pitched or loud noise for an extended period of time.

Both of these situations lead to the damage and loss of the hair cells in your inner ear that help transmit sound signals into your brain, and once these hairs are lost, they don’t return, so your hearing is unable to recover.

If you have Ménière’s disease, your hearing loss may get progressively worse over time, until it becomes more profound.

It’s important to speak to an audiologist as soon as you notice symptoms of high frequency hearing loss, so that they can help you manage it and protect the hearing you have.
What does high frequency hearing loss sound like?
You’re likely to have high frequency hearing loss if you struggle to hear sounds like:
  • Birdsong
  • Women’s and children’s voices
  • Doorbells
  • Alerts on your phone
  • Certain notes in music
You might also find that you struggle to hear conversations over the phone or in busy or noisy environments, that speech is muffled, and that you find yourself adjusting the volume on your TV and radio.

In most cases, high frequency hearing loss is a gradual process, so it may take some time to notice that your hearing is getting worse. That’s why it’s so important to have your hearing regularly assessed as you get older; any problems can be caught and managed early, so you can continue to make the most of your hearing.

Always speak to your doctor if your hearing loss comes on suddenly or following a period of illness.
Can hearing aids help high frequency hearing loss?
Yes. Hearing aids can help you manage the condition by amplifying the high frequency sounds that you’d otherwise miss.

There are many different types of hearing aids, including those that sit behind your ear, those that sit in your ear, and those that sit within your ear canal, so if you’re affected by high frequency hearing loss, always speak to an audiologist to discuss your options and find the most suitable hearing aid for your needs and lifestyle.
Can high frequency hearing loss cause tinnitus?
No. High frequency hearing loss is often accompanied by tinnitus, and hearing loss can be a secondary symptom of tinnitus, but it doesn’t usually cause the condition.

If you’re suffering from tinnitus and are experiencing hearing loss, it’s important to speak to your doctor so that they can examine your ears and determine whether there’s an underlying cause.
Is high frequency hearing loss a disability?
It depends on the severity of your hearing loss. If it’s long-term, severe, negatively impacting your day-to-day life and preventing you from working, then according to the Equality Act 2010, you’re classed as disabled, even if you don’t think of yourself as having a disability.

If this is the case, you might be able to get help in the form of disability grants or benefits.

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