Sudden Hearing Loss in One Ear: Is It Normal?

By Jennifer Nadel, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
July 28, 2022

About 66,000 new cases of sudden hearing loss are diagnosed annually in the United States, which is likely an undercount because the condition is often misdiagnosed. 

Though sudden hearing loss in one ear can happen overnight, it often occurs over a couple of days.

It can be mild or severe, have an unknown cause, or an underlying condition may cause it.

But it always requires immediate medical care. 

In this article, I’ll discuss sudden hearing loss in one ear and how it happens.

I’ll explain the possible causes and how doctors diagnose it.

Then, I’ll talk about the treatment options and how to prevent sudden hearing loss.

Finally, I’ll highlight when to see a medical provider.

What is Sudden Hearing Loss? 

Sudden hearing loss, also known as unilateral hearing loss or sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNHL), is a loss of hearing without warning signs.

The initial symptoms are usually similar to that of a head cold or allergies, so people ignore it or try to treat it with over-the-counter medicines. 

The hearing loss often happens over two to three days, as sounds become muffled until hearing is completely lost.

It can affect people of all ages but is more common among people in their late 40s and early 50s.

It also affects all genders equally.

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How Does Hearing Loss Happen? 

Sudden hearing loss happens because there is something wrong with the sensory organs of the inner ear.

People affected may first realize it when they wake up in the morning.

Others may notice it when they try to listen with the only affected ear, typically during a phone call or using headphones.

Some people may experience an alarming pop sound right before losing their hearing.

Symptoms

Aside from the loss of hearing, other symptoms may include:

  • Dizziness
  • Loss of balance
  • Muffled sounds
  • A feeling of ear fullness
  • Ringing sound in the ear, also known as tinnitus
  • Need to turn up the volume of television and radio
  • Trouble hearing when there is background noise

These symptoms can affect the quality of a person’s life.

Because conversations and socialization can be more difficult with a loss of hearing in one ear, the person might begin to experience feelings of isolation and even depression.

Causes

In most cases, the cause of sudden hearing in one ear is unknown.

However, there are a few possible causes, including the following:

Bacterial Infection 

Syphilis and lyme disease are the two most common bacterial infections that can cause sudden hearing loss.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that causes a variety of symptoms.

Infected individuals usually first see a painless lesion on their genitals.

Sudden hearing loss may also be among the first symptoms.

Lyme disease is an infection caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdoferi, and sudden hearing loss is a late-stage symptom.

Viral Infection 

A viral infection may cause sudden hearing loss in individuals.

It may be the virus itself or inflammation caused by the infection that may affect the inner ear.

Some of the common viral infections associated with hearing loss include mumps, measles, chickenpox, rubella, and herpes.

Inner Ear Disorders

Inner ear disorders like Meniere’s disease can cause sudden hearing loss.

It is usually associated with severe dizziness, ringing in the ear, and a feeling of fullness inside the ear.

It is more common among people in their 40s or 50s.

Migraines 

Migraines are a recurring type of headache that can range from moderate to severe.

They usually affect only one side of the head.

Migraines may cause dizziness and, less commonly, sudden hearing loss.

Neurological Disorders 

Neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis can cause hearing loss.

In the case of multiple sclerosis, hearing loss is associated with damage to the auditory nerve pathway.

Circulation Problems 

Blood and blood circulation-related conditions such as sickle cell anemia, transient ischemic attack, subdural hematoma, emboli, and macroglobulinemia may cause hearing loss.

These conditions may lead to a decreased flow of blood to the cochlea (a hollow tube in the inner ear that contains the sensory organ for hearing), which can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss.

Thyroid Hormone Imbalance 

Abnormal changes in the thyroid hormone levels can cause sudden hearing loss.

For example, conditions like hypothyroidism (insufficient thyroid hormone) and hyperthyroidism (excessive thyroid hormone levels) can cause hearing loss.

Trauma 

Head trauma, whether minor or major, can cause sudden hearing loss.

It can happen for various reasons, including damage to the hair cells in the cochlea, abnormal bone growth in the ear, and neurological damage. 

Tumors

Acoustic neuroma is a non-cancerous tumor that develops on the balance and hearing nerve.

The pressure can  lead to sudden hearing loss in 50% of people with acoustic neuromas.  

Stroke 

A stroke happens when there is an interruption of blood supply to the brain.

This condition can affect the auditory pathway causing sudden hearing loss.

Certain Medications 

Ototoxic medications are medications that can cause damage to the ear and the auditory nerve.

The damage these drugs can cause may be temporary or permanent.

Some common drugs that may lead to hearing loss include gentamicin, chemotherapy drugs, aspirin, quinine, and loop diuretics.  

Diagnosis

An ear, nose, and throat doctor or otolaryngologist usually makes the diagnosis.

Your healthcare provider will test a patient using pure tone audiometry, where they’ll measure how loud different sound frequencies need to be before you can hear them.

Sudden hearing loss is diagnosed when a person has lost up to 30 decibels, within three days, such that a normal conversation is heard as a whisper. 

After diagnosing sudden hearing loss, your provider may order tests such as an MRI, blood tests, and balance tests to find out the underlying cause. 

Treatment

Immediate treatment can help some people recover their hearing, so contact a healthcare provider as soon as possible.

Doctors may administer corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and decrease swelling.

These can be taken orally or injected into the middle ear, called intratympanic therapy. 

Treatment usually lasts two to three weeks.

Then, depending on the cause, your provider will treat the underlying condition as required.

However, if hearing loss is severe and not restored with treatment, the doctor may recommend a hearing aid or cochlear implants to aid hearing.

Prevention

In most cases, the cause of sudden hearing loss is unknown, so there is no guaranteed way to prevent it.

However, getting vaccinated against diseases such as measles, mumps, and rubella and having your hearing tested regularly may help.

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When to See a Medical Provider 

Sudden hearing loss is a medical emergency.

If you’ve lost your hearing, see a healthcare provider immediately.

The condition should be treated within two weeks of its occurrence because reporting early can increase the chances of recovery. 

How K Health Can Help

Have you experienced sudden hearing loss? You’ll need to speak with a doctor. Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a healthcare provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does it mean when you suddenly lose hearing in one ear?
Sudden hearing loss should be taken seriously and is considered a medical emergency, so see your doctor as soon as possible. There are many possible causes, but losing your hearing is a big deal by itself.
What is the most common cause of sudden hearing loss?
Sudden hearing loss in most cases is idiopathic, meaning the cause is unknown. However, some possible causes are bacterial and viral infections, inner ear disorder, head trauma, the presence of a tumor, and blood circulation problems.
Can hearing loss in one ear be serious?
Yes, hearing loss in one ear, also known as unilateral hearing loss, can range from mild to severe. When it is severe, it is called single-sided deafness (SSD) and requires immediate medical attention.
Can sudden hearing loss be restored?
Yes, sudden hearing loss can sometimes be restored. It depends mainly on the cause and how soon the person receives medical attention. The earlier the person receives treatment, the higher the chances of recovery.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Jennifer Nadel, MD

Dr. Jennifer Nadel is a board certified emergency medicine physician and received her medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine. She has worked in varied practice environments, including academic urban level-one trauma centers, community hospital emergency departments, skilled nursing facilities, telemedicine, EMS medical control, and flight medicine.

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