Ask the Expert: Muffled Hearing Loss in One Ear

Dr. Thomas Tedeschi


Dr. Thomas Tedeschi
Chief Audiology Officer, Miracle-Ear

Miracle-Ear Chief Audiology Officer Dr. Thomas Tedeschi answers some of your common hearing-related questions.

What is hearing loss in one ear?

Hearing loss doesn’t always happen equally in both ears. Hearing loss in one ear, called unilateral hearing loss, occurs when one ear has hearing loss, but the other ear can hear normally.

Both children and adults can experience unilateral hearing loss. Sometimes it’s temporary and can be treated to restore normal hearing. Other times, the loss can be permanent.

While one ear can hear normally with unilateral hearing loss, our bodies were designed to be binaural, or to hear with both ears. Our ears constantly communicate with one another as they absorb sounds from the environment. People with this condition may find it difficult to:

  • Detect where a sound is coming from (sound localization)
  • Hear and understand speech—especially in crowded, noisy environments
  • Hear clearly and loudly (the sound may be muffled, and the volume diminished)
  • Tune out background noises


This type of hearing loss can range from mild to profound; if the loss is severe enough, it may mean the person is deaf in one ear. In these cases, it is sometimes called single-sided deafness (SSD). 

I recently started to experience muffled hearing in one ear. What’s going on?

Those that experience muffled ear typically describe a “full” or “plugged up” feeling. It can often feel like there is cotton or some other object clogging the ear.

Muffled hearing can present itself in one or both ears; its onset is often sudden, but it can also occur gradually over time. Muffled hearing is typically a conductive hearing loss, which happens when sound waves cannot pass through to the inner ear from the middle and outer ear.

What causes unilateral hearing loss or muffled hearing?

Many possible causes exist for these conditions, especially if the onset is sudden:

Illness/Infection

Certain illnesses and infections can cause muffled hearing or hearing loss in one ear. An ear infection, for example, causes fluid to build up in the middle ear, blocking the sound from entering the inner ear. You can also get “swimmer’s ear,” especially if you are a frequent swimmer or spend time in a hot, moist climate. Swimmer’s ear occurs when the skin inside the ear canal gets infected due to water that contains bacteria entering the ear. This water gets trapped, creating a breeding ground for bacteria. The result is inflammation and swelling which narrows or blocks the ear canal.

Ear blockage

A common culprit for muffled hearing is excessive ear wax (cerumen). Ear wax can sometimes build up in the ear canal and cause a blockage. This ear wax can dry up and harden over time, increasing the risk of impaction. Impacted ear wax can affect your ability to hear. Ear wax buildup and blockage often happens when people use items like cotton swabs or bobby pins to try to clean their ears. This only pushes the ear wax farther into the ears and can also cause blockage or injury to the ear.

Foreign objects can also enter and get stuck in the ear, causing hearing loss. Children are more at risk for this, but even adults can get objects stuck in the ear. Sometimes a small bug can fly into the ear while camping, running or working outdoors. A wad of cotton from a cotton swab can also get stuck in the ear. Remember the old adage “Never put anything in your ear that is smaller than your elbow!”.

Exposure to loud noise

Extremely loud bursts of sound—such as those from firearms, explosions and live concerts—can sometimes cause a temporary or permanent loss of hearing. It can tear a hole in the eardrum or damage the delicate bones in the middle ear, Hearing loss in one ear or both ears can result from this type of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) along with a sensitivity to sound or ringing in the ear(s).

Exposure to certain drugs

Everyone reacts differently to medication, but some may be ototoxic and contribute to hearing loss in one or both ears. Meds that are known to be ototoxic can damage the sensitive nerve cells in our inner ear. This damage may lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss, ringing in the ears or dizziness. Check with your doctor if you take (or are prescribed) any of the following:

  • Antibiotics
  • Loop diuretics
  • Chemotherapy drugs
  • Pain relievers (especially aspirin and NSAIDS such as ibuprofen)
 

Traumatic brain injury or head trauma

A sudden, intense injury to the head or brain can sometimes result in hearing loss in one ear (or both). Car accidents are a common cause of traumatic brain injury (TBI). TBI’s effects can cascade across the body, including the ears and central auditory system. The blunt force can damage the tympanic membrane, middle ear and nerve cells in the cochlea—resulting in hearing loss, and in some cases, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), dizziness or loss of balance.

What can I do to treat my muffled ear or unilateral hearing loss?

If you start to experience muffled hearing or hearing loss in one ear, you should contact a physician, preferably a physician specializing in diseases of the ear. He or she can examine the issue and refer you to an audiologist to properly evaluate and diagnose the hearing problem.

Depending on the cause, treatment options may include:

  • Antibiotics (for ear infections)
  • Removing the impacted ear wax (or foreign object stuck in ear)
  • Surgery (ex. to repair a perforated eardrum)
  • Hearing aids
 

I am deaf in one ear or have permanent loss of hearing in one ear. Can a hearing aid help?

Single-sided hearing loss can sometimes be treated with differing types of amplification.  If it’s determined that the hearing loss can be treated with a hearing aid then the use of hearing aid can be utilized to provided binaural hearing.

Sometimes the hearing loss in the affected ear cannot be helped with a hearing aid. In these cases, Miracle-Ear offers a CROS/BiCROS solution. (CROS means Contralateral Routing of Signal.)

These hearing aids connect wirelessly through the CROS transmitter. When sounds and speech are detected by the ear with untreatable hearing loss, they can be transmitted wirelessly to the better ear to be processed. This wireless transmission allows you to hear better in a variety of situations, such as talking on the phone, conversing in a group setting, or walking side by side with someone.

What are some ways I can prevent, or reduce my risk of, getting sudden loss of hearing in one ear?

Here are some tips for protecting your hearing health:

Eat a healthy diet rich in vitamins and minerals.

Many of them are known to protect ears by reducing the risk of ear infection, nourishing the bones in the middle ear, and/or improving circulation to nerve cells.

Protect your ears from loud noises.

Loud noises can damage the delicate nerve cells in the inner ear, causing temporary or permanent hearing loss. Protect your ears from loud noises by turning down the volume or wearing protective ear plugs or earmuffs in noisy situations. Common places to protect your ears:

  • Mowing the lawn
  • Hunting or at the shooting range
  • Attending live concerts
  • Operating farm equipment or other heavy machinery
 

Avoid cleaning ears with cotton swabs.

Ears are self-cleaning; our body naturally produces and expels ear wax on its own. Cotton swabs can push wax further into the ear canal, increasing the risk of impaction. They can also damage the eardrum. Instead, use a clean washcloth to wipe away excess wax pushed out of the inner canal.

Let’s talk hearing health

If you or a loved one is experiencing hearing loss, you’re not alone. Nearly 38 million American adults report some trouble hearing. Take your first step to better hearing today by downloading our free hearing guide.

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