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

Woman struggling to hear her husband while camping.

Cranking up the volume doesn’t always solve hearing loss issues. Here’s something to consider: Lots of people can’t understand conversations even though they are able to hear soft sounds. The reason for this is hearing loss often occurs unevenly. You tend to lose particular frequencies but are able to hear others, and that can make speech sound garbled.

Types of Hearing Loss

  • Conductive hearing loss is triggered by a mechanical problem in the ear. It might be a congenital structural issue or due to an ear infection or excessive wax buildup. In most cases, hearing specialists can manage the underlying condition to enhance your hearing, and if necessary, recommend hearing aids to fill in for any remaining hearing loss.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss is more prevalent and caused by problems with the tiny hairs, or cilia, in the inner ear. These hairs vibrate when they detect sound and send out chemical messages to the auditory nerve, which transmits them to the brain for interpretation. These little hairs do not regenerate when damaged or destroyed. This is why sensorineural hearing loss is often caused by the normal process of aging. Things like exposure to loud noise, certain medications, and illnesses can also bring about sensorineural hearing loss.

Symptoms of Sensorineural Hearing Loss

You may hear a bit better if people speak louder to you, but it isn’t going to comprehensively deal with your hearing loss problems. Specific sounds, like consonant sounds, can be hard to hear for individuals who have sensorineural hearing loss. This may cause somebody who has hearing loss to the incorrect conclusion that those around them are mumbling when in fact, they are talking clearly.

The frequency of consonant sounds make them difficult to hear for somebody dealing with hearing loss. Pitch is measured in hertz (Hz), and many consonants register in our ears at a higher pitch than other sounds. For example, 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. Because of damage to the inner ear, these higher pitches are difficult 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 speaks louder if you don’t understand 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 reach your auditory system without the interference you would normally hear in your environment. Also, the frequencies you can’t hear are amplified 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.