Why You Can’t Make Out Conversation, But You Can Hear Soft Sounds

Woman struggling to hear her husband while camping.

Cranking up the volume doesn’t always remedy hearing loss problems. Here’s something to consider: Many people are capable of hearing very soft sounds, but can’t hear conversations. That’s because hearing loss is frequently irregular. Certain frequencies get lost while you can hear others without any problem.

Hearing Loss Comes in Numerous Types

  • Conductive hearing loss is caused by a mechanical issue in the ear. It could be a congenital structural problem or due to an ear infection or excessive wax accumulation. Your underlying condition, in many cases, can be addressed by your hearing specialist and they can, if necessary, advise hearing aids to help fill in any remaining hearing loss.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss happens when the little hairs in the inner ear, also known as cilia, are harmed, and this condition is more common. When sound is perceived, it vibrates these hairs which send chemical messages to the auditory nerve to be sent to the brain for translation. When these fragile hairs in your inner ear are injured or killed, they don’t regenerate. This is why sensorineural hearing loss is commonly a result of the natural process of aging. Things like exposure to loud noise, particular medications, and illnesses can also bring about sensorineural hearing loss.

Symptoms of Sensorineural Hearing Loss

You might hear a little better if people talk louder to you, but it’s not going to comprehensively manage your hearing loss challenges. People with sensorineural hearing loss have trouble making out certain sounds, including consonants in speech. This may lead someone who has hearing loss to the incorrect conclusion that people around them are mumbling when actually, they’re talking clearly.

The frequency of consonant sounds make them hard to hear for somebody experiencing hearing loss. Pitch is measured in hertz (Hz), and many 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. Conversely, consonants like “f” and “s” register at 1,500 to 6,000 Hz. Individuals with sensorineural hearing loss have a hard time processing these higher-pitched sounds due to the damage to their inner ears.

This is why simply speaking louder doesn’t always help. If you can’t understand some of the letters in a word like “shift,” it won’t make much difference how loudly the other person talks.

How Can Hearing Aids Help?

Hearing aids come with a component that goes in the ear, so sounds reach your auditory system without the interference you would normally hear in your environment. Hearing aids also help you by boosting the frequencies you’re unable to hear and balancing that with the frequencies you are able to hear. In this way, you get more clarity. Modern hearing aids can also cancel out background sound to make it easier to make out speech.