One ear hearing loss (often referred to as unilateral hearing loss, unilateral deafness, or single-sided deafness) is when you experience deafness or difficulty hearing in only one ear. Whether you have right or left ear hearing loss, you’ll be able to hear clearly from your other ear, just as you’ve always been able to.
You can be born with unilateral hearing loss, develop it in childhood, or acquire it as an adult.
Just like in other instances of hearing loss, you might struggle to hear others in noisy environments and fail to pick up on background noises. However, a key sign you could have one ear hearing loss is that you also struggle to locate the source of a sound. We were designed to have binaural hearing (two ear hearing) for a reason! In addition to aiding the range and quality of our hearing, having two ears allows the brain to identify a sound’s location with greater precision.
If hearing loss comes on in one ear suddenly, prompt medical attention is necessary. Sudden deafness (or sudden sensorineural hearing loss or SSHL) often affects just one ear, appears unexplained, and develops rapidly. A case of SSHL seems to affect one person per 5,000 every year and you are most likely to be affected if you are an adult in your 40s or 50s.
How Common is One Ear Hearing Loss?
According to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), approximately two to three out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears.
Researchers are still uncertain about how many people live with a unilateral hearing loss, but it isn’t uncommon. There are an estimated 60,000 people with a unilateral hearing loss in the U.S. alone, however, when this is compared to the 30 million people aged 12 years or older that have hearing loss in both ears (based on standard hearing examinations) in the U.S. this is considerably fewer people.
What Causes One Ear Hearing Loss?
A few things can lead to hearing loss in one ear. As you might expect, most factors can also cause hearing loss in both ears.
Here are some common causes:
- Injury to the ear or the head
- Exposure to loud noises in a single ear
- Natural changes due to aging
- Wax buildup
- Ear infections with fluid buildup
- Certain drugs (for example, chemotherapy drugs, diuretics such as furosemide, salicylate toxicity from aspirin, antibiotics (e.g. streptomycin and tobramycin).
- Blockage of the ear
- Presence of a foreign body in the ear
Depending on the issue, these can be treatable or a permanent problem with the functioning of the ear itself.
More rarely, health conditions can also cause one ear hearing loss:
- Acoustic neuroma - a type of tumor pressing on the nerve affecting hearing eardrum rupture.
- Meniere’s disease - a disorder that affects the inner ear and eventually leads to deafness.
- Labyrinthitis - a disorder causing the inner ear apparatus to become swollen and irritated.
- Neurofibromatosis type 2 - an inherited disorder characterized by the growth of noncancerous tumors on the auditory nerve.
- Reye’s syndrome - a rare disorder (occurring mainly in childhood) that causes swelling in the liver and brain.
- Temporal arteritis - a serious condition where the arteries at the side of your head become inflamed.
- Vertebrobasilar insufficiency - poor blood flow to the posterior (back) portion of the brain, which is fed by two vertebral arteries.
- Otitis externa (swimmer’s ear) - a condition that causes inflammation of the external ear canal, common if you are repeatedly exposed to water.
- Otitis media with effusion (glue ear): a collection of non-infected thick or sticky fluid in the middle ear space.
- Shingles - an infection caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, common in older people.
Can you Treat One Ear Hearing Loss?
You should see a physician as soon as possible if you suspect you’ve developed hearing loss. Sudden hearing loss on one side or both demands immediate medical attention. A physician or specialist audiologist will be able to give you a hearing test, discuss treatment options, and may even find that your hearing loss is caused by a treatable underlying condition that requires medical attention.
During your appointment, your doctor will assess your symptoms, medical history, and perform a physical examination of your ears, nose, and throat. A hearing test can then determine which part of the ear is affected, providing crucial information as to the underlying cause of the hearing loss.
Whatever the outcome of your hearing test, they’ll be able to refer you to the appropriate service, give you a more comprehensive hearing test if required, or discuss possible treatments whether this is medications, a hearing aid, or surgery, then and there.
Can One Ear Hearing Loss Come Back?
While it’s true that hearing loss can go away on its own in some instances, ‘some instances’ should really be emphasized here. This doesn’t mean that it will go away without medical treatment, and you should still see a doctor as soon as possible.
It’s always a bad idea to leave a medical issue untreated, and hearing problems are no exception. Untreated hearing loss can even increase your risk of developing other health problems such as dementia, making the fact that unaddressed hearing loss poses an annual global cost of US$750 billion slightly less shocking.
If you’re experiencing hearing loss in one or both ears, make a doctor’s appointment – don’t ignore it.
As one ear hearing loss can range from mild to profound, sometimes the loss is very severe, and it might mean the person is deaf in one ear. It may have always been this way or it might have slowly worsened over time. This is sometimes referred to as single-sided deafness (SSD).
Recommendations for People with One Ear Hearing Loss
If you receive a diagnosis of one ear hearing loss, you’ll probably have lots of questions, even after you leave the doctor’s room. The National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) offers lots of useful information and guidance, as does this Healthy Hearing overview.
If you’re looking at treatment options, you might find a one ear hearing aid helpful. Some hearing device options for people with one ear hearing loss include CROS (contralateral routing of signal) and BiCROS (bilateral contralateral routing of signal) hearing aids and bone-anchored implants which give you a better understanding multidirectional sound, even with just one ear.
Everyone’s hearing loss is different, so always consult your doctor about the best treatment for you.
The information in this guide has been written using the following reliable sources: