Losing your ability to hear sounds and voices clearly can be an overwhelming life change.
Hearing impacts how we communicate with others, how we experience life, and also how we speak.
Partial hearing loss can occur in one or both ears.
This article will discuss hearing loss that impacts only one ear, what causes it, and how you can treat it. We’ll also talk about how you can prevent hearing loss and protect your remaining hearing abilities.
First, let’s examine the ear and how hearing happens.
The Structure of the Ear
The ear has three important parts: the outer, middle, and inner ear.
- Outer Ear. The outer ear is the part of the ear you can see. It includes the pinna (the visible part of the ear) and the ear canal.
- Middle Ear. The middle ear includes the eardrum and the three small bones of the middle ear, called the malleus, incus, and stapes.
- Inner Ear. The inner ear contains the fluid-filled, snail-shaped cochlea, the semicircular canals, and the auditory nerve.
These parts work together to collect sound waves and transfer them to the brain to be translated as the sounds we hear.
The Process of Hearing Sound
The pinna is shaped to collect sound waves naturally and send them down the ear canal.
At the base of the ear canal, the sound waves vibrate against the eardrum, which causes the three bones of the middle ear to vibrate.
These bones amplify the vibrations of the sound waves and cause the fluid inside the cochlea to move.
Tiny hairs inside the cochlea also begin to move and interact with specialized neurons.
These neurons help change the sound waves into electrical signals in the semicircular canals.
The auditory nerve then carries the electrical signals to the brain, which interprets the sound waves as voices, music, or whatever we are listening to.
This happens in nanoseconds, with no noticeable delay between a sound wave leaving a speaker’s mouth and registering as a voice with our brains.
What Are the Types of Hearing Loss?
Hearing loss isn’t always something that affects both ears or causes a person to be fully deaf.
There are several different types of hearing loss.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
This hearing loss involves damage to one or some of the structures in the inner ear.
Most frequently, the tiny hair cells are damaged or destroyed. Because these hair cells don’t regenerate, a portion of our hearing is lost when they are damaged.
Conductive Hearing Loss
When hearing loss occurs due to damage in the outer or middle ear, the person is said to have conductive hearing loss.
Conductive hearing loss can sometimes be temporary, caused by an ear infection or a buildup of earwax in the ear canal.
Bilateral Hearing Loss
Hearing loss that affects both ears is bilateral hearing loss.
This type of hearing loss may not cause equal hearing loss in both ears, but it is a hearing impairment that affects both ears.
Unilateral Hearing Loss
Hearing impairment in one ear is unilateral hearing loss.
This may include deafness or being hard of hearing in the impaired ear. We’ll discuss this in-depth and what causes it in a moment.
What Causes Hearing Loss?
Causes of hearing loss range from loud noises to heredity. Here are some of the most common reasons people might experience hearing problems or permanent hearing loss.
Prolonged Exposure to Loud Noise
Working in a noisy environment or being exposed to loud noises can cause damage to the tiny hair cells inside the cochlea, ultimately leading to noise induced hearing loss.
Although OSHA defines a working environment with loud noise as an environment that produces over 85 decibels over eight hours, most hearing specialists agree that a safer level of noise is anything below 70 decibels.
As such, it can be important to make a personal judgment call and wear hearing protection if you are exposed to a noisy environment at work but have not been instructed by your employer that you must wear it.
Losing some of our normal hearing as we age is very common.
Presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss, happens as the structures inside our ears begin to decline in functionality.
Presbycusis is most common among people aged 65 and older, although age-related hearing loss may begin as early as 40.
Illnesses and Diseases
Sometimes, hearing loss happens due to infection, illness, or disease.
Ménière's disease, for instance, is a disease that affects the inner ear and can cause vertigo and hearing loss.
Conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease can also cause damage to nerves and blood vessels in the ear, leading to partial hearing loss.
Tumors or growths may develop on the vestibular nerve or auditory nerve and can be a possible cause of hearing loss.
Head or Neck Trauma
More commonly associated with sudden hearing loss, experiencing a head or neck injury can cause you to lose your hearing in one or both ears.
These types of medical emergencies are best handled by a care team that involves both a hearing specialist and a surgeon with experience in otolaryngology, a field of study involving head and neck diseases.
Being born with single-sided deafness or hearing impairment in one or both ears can be caused by genetic malformations of any part of the ear structures.
What Is Hearing Loss in One Ear?
Single-sided deafness (SSD), or hearing loss in one ear, affects nearly 60,000 Americans.
SSD can mean that the hearing loss in one ear is so impaired that you cannot hear at all, or you can have a hearing impairment that simply makes it hard to hear in one ear.
In other words, hearing loss in one ear can be total or partial.
Symptoms of Hearing Loss in One Ear
Sometimes, it can be hard to know if you are experiencing hearing loss or something else, like a blockage.
If you suspect you have hearing loss in one ear, you can look for symptoms like:
- Tinnitus (buzzing or ringing) in only one ear. This may come and go, happen only at night, or be constant.
- Frequently asking other people to repeat themselves.
- Using one ear to take telephone calls or listen to music.
- Not being able to focus on a conversation or having difficulty with conversation when you are in a place with a lot of distracting background noise.
- Not being able to hear certain sounds when others speak. Frequently, it is harder to hear certain consonants, like F, S, and H.
- Feeling irritable, depressed, or withdrawn socially.
- Having a feeling of fullness or pressure in one ear. Feeling like your ear is plugged or won’t “pop.”
You may experience one or some of these symptoms if you have hearing loss in one ear.
Diagnosing Hearing Loss in One Ear
Your primary care physician is a good place to start if you think you have experienced a unilateral hearing loss.
Your doctor may refer you to an audiologist who can administer a hearing test called an audiogram.
An audiogram measures how many tones you can hear in one or both ears.
If your audiogram returns normal, you may need additional testing that can involve answering questions about how you communicate in social situations or attempting to identify particular sounds over background noise.
What Are Treatment Options for Hearing Loss in One Ear?
Unilateral hearing loss can make it hard for you to enjoy life as you did before your hearing loss, making it harder for you to communicate. Thankfully, numerous treatment options can make it easier for you to hear and understand people clearly.
Digital hearing aids help you hear better and self-adjust to keep loud and soft noises at a constant, safe decibel.
Open-ear, miniature hearing aids fit behind the ear and are virtually undetectable by anyone other than the wearer.
They have a sleek design that allows them to help you regain your confidence without letting anyone know you have a hearing impairment.
If your hearing loss is determined to be severe (making it hard for you to hear from your ear), you may be a candidate for cochlear implants.
These implants are surgically placed and bypass the damaged portion of the ear.
Through amplification of sound waves, they send electronic signals directly to the auditory nerve.
If your hearing loss has happened due to a trauma to your head or neck, you may be able to have corrective neck surgery or ear surgery to repair damage and restore your hearing.
Losing hearing in one ear can make it hard to understand consonants when people speak.
Lip reading is often used as an alternative or adjunct to other hearing treatments to help a person with a hearing impairment communicate more effectively.
Lip reading means watching a person’s mouth movements as they speak and becoming familiar with the movements that produce particular sounds, especially the ones you can no longer hear.
Any hearing loss treatment will involve prevention to help prevent further hearing loss.
Prevention can include methods like avoiding noisy environments, making sure you are wearing hearing protection when you enter a noisy environment, and protecting your ears while you are enjoying some types of hobbies and pastimes.
For instance, if you love woodworking and operate a saw, wearing hearing protection can ensure the sound of the saw doesn’t interfere with your remaining hearing.
Additionally, lawn work that involves gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers can also be hazardous to your hearing. Always wear hearing protection when using this type of equipment.
Healthy Hearing for Life
It’s important to take care of your hearing so you can enjoy the same quality of life you now experience.
If you’ve lost hearing in one ear, talk to your doctor about your treatment options, and ensure you are taking steps to protect your remaining hearing.
For more information and tips on healthy hearing and healthy living, check out the USA Rx blog.
There, you’ll find articles about common health concerns, tips on staying healthy at any age or stage, and facts about treatment options that might be available to you.