The human body is an amazing machine, there’s no doubt about that, but even parts of well-maintained machines wear out with time. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it’s a normal part of aging to gradually lose our hearing.
When we lose hearing in both ears – the most common type of hearing loss – it’s known as bilateral. Another less common form of hearing loss – unilateral -- occurs in just one ear. While bilateral hearing loss is common in people over the age of 65, unilateral hearing loss most often affects children. Hearing health professionals estimate close to 400,000 children in the United States suffer from this condition.
Like its bilateral cousin, acquired unilateral hearing loss can be conductive, sensorineural or mixed in nature. Conductive hearing loss occurs when an abnormality in the ear canal, such as earwax or other foreign matter, blocks sound from entering the inner ear. Conductive hearing loss is often corrected with medication or surgery. Senorineural hearing loss occurs when there is damage to the cochlea and/or auditory nerve in the inner ear. Many of those with sensorineural hearing loss may be helped by wearing a hearing aid, depending upon the severity of the damage.
Symptoms of unilateral hearing loss include trouble identifying the source of sound and difficulty distinguishing speech from other background sounds. Sometimes this condition is accompanied by a case of tinnitus, or constant ringing in the ear. You may notice individuals with unilateral hearing loss turning their head to hear with their “good ear.” Unilateral hearing loss can happen gradually, suddenly, or occur during pregnancy.
As with other forms of hearing loss, an otolarangyologist or audiologist can perform a thorough check up and hearing evaluation to identify the reason for the hearing impairment and recommend a plan of treatment. Many individuals with unilateral hearing loss benefit from wearing a hearing aid, while others may require surgery or a cochlear implant to improve their hearing.
Many children with unilateral hearing loss are identified at birth through newborn screening programs. Although the function of their good ear doesn’t usually deteriorate in these cases, it’s important for parents to have their children’s hearing monitored frequently. Children who don’t hear well may experience delays in speech and language development if the condition isn’t detected and treated as soon as possible.
Experts estimate that one in three Americans over the age of 65 experience some degree of hearing loss. Although this typically occurs in both ears, it’s possible to occur unilaterally instead. This type of hearing loss, known as Presbycusis, is the most common and is directly related to the aging process.
Like bilateral hearing loss, other causes for unilateral hearing loss may include injury and disease. Individuals who work in a noisy environment (a constant level of more than 85 decibels) or those who experience a sudden, loud noise may sustain damage to hearing in one ear. Illnesses, such as measles and mumps, or a bad ear infection may also cause hearing loss.
If you’ve noticed you don’t hear out of one ear as well as you do the other, it’s important to have your hearing evaluated thoroughly by an audiologist – even though you still hear well with your other ear. The sooner the cause or reason for your hearing loss is identified, the sooner treatment can begin.