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Hearing Loss in One Ear

Man with Unilateral Hearing Loss

For the most part, hearing loss tends to affect both ears. One ear may experience a slightly higher degree of hearing loss than the other – similar to how most people with eyesight issues have one eye that is slightly worse than the other – but the issue is predominantly universal.

However, in some cases, hearing loss can occur in just one ear, with the other completely unaffected. Below, we at the Hear For You Hearing & Balance Center have put together a simple guide to this scenario, exploring the possible causes, potential treatments and what anyone experiencing the issue should expect.

Introducing unilateral hearing loss

When an individual is only experiencing hearing loss in one ear, this is known as “unilateral” hearing loss. This is in contrast to the more common bilateral hearing loss, which is hearing loss that affects both ears.

Unilateral hearing loss is unlikely to be diagnosed in an individual if they are experiencing hearing loss in both ears, even if one is more severely affected than the other. Unilateral hearing loss is only usually diagnosed if the person’s hearing in their unaffected ear is completely standard.

What causes unilateral hearing loss?

For the most part, unilateral hearing loss has the same causative factors as bilateral hearing loss, namely:

  • Aging
  • Prolonged exposure to loud noises without sufficient ear protection
  • Excess earwax in the ear canal
  • Tumors
  • Illness
  • Ear infections
  • Injury to the ear

Why does unilateral hearing loss occur?

In cases of excess earwax, tumors or injuries, unilateral hearing loss occurs because only one ear is affected.

For cases where there is no secondary factor besides aging or damage, unilateral hearing loss is just one of those things – there’s no definitive reason why only one ear has been affected by these issues, while the other continues to function completely as standard.

How is unilateral hearing loss diagnosed?

It varies depending on the cause of the hearing loss.

Injuries and ear infections tend to be acute conditions, meaning they will last for less than three months. For these causes of hearing loss on just one side, the diagnosis is usually based on the infection or the injury itself; the hearing loss does not need to be formally diagnosed, as it is a symptom of a larger issue rather than a condition in and of itself.

For more chronic occurrences of unilateral hearing loss – such as hearing loss that is due to aging or damage to the ear – diagnosis is usually obtained via an audiologist-administered hearing test. This test is identical to the same tests used for suspected bilateral hearing loss, with the test results – known as an audiogram – confirming that the issue is only present in one ear.

How is unilateral hearing loss treated?

For cases where the hearing loss has been caused by secondary issues – such as illness, tumors or earwax – the rectification of these problems tends to resolve the symptom.

In cases where hearing loss is caused by aging or damage to the ear, the most common treatment for unilateral hearing loss is identical to the treatment for bilateral hearing loss: hearing aids.

Can you just use hearing aids in one ear?

This is a possibility, but for most people who experience unilateral hearing loss, there is a preferable solution worth exploring.

To explain this, we first need to discuss how standard hearing aids work. There are a variety of different types of hearing aids, all with the same central function: a microphone or receiver “hears” noise and the noise is then amplified into the ear canal, allowing the wearer to hear the sound clearly. This process is essentially self-contained; the microphone and amplifier are dedicated to improving the hearing of the ear they are attached on only. For this reason, people with bilateral hearing loss will wear two hearing aids, one in each ear, both performing this same self-contained process.

A person experiencing unilateral hearing loss could, technically, wear a single hearing aid on their affected ear, which would perform the same function as above. However, most people who experience one-sided hearing loss prefer to opt for a device that works a little differently. In these specialist devices, when a noise from the non-hearing side is “heard” by the microphone, it is transmitted to their unaffected ear, rather than amplifying the sound so their affected ear can hear it.

Is it always necessary to treat unilateral hearing loss?

Given that people with unilateral hearing loss can still hear well in their unaffected ear, some people find it tempting to try and manage without a hearing aid. This, however, is inadvisable; hearing loss can significantly impact a person’s quality of life, even if it’s just on one side, so treatment via a hearing aid is always the best course of action.

If you are experiencing any kind of hearing loss, be it unilateral or bilateral, please contact us at Hear For You Hearing & Balance Center for further advice at (401) 475-6116. We look forward to helping you.


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