8 Easy Tips to Live with Single-Sided Deafness


Man holding hand up to his ear suffering from single sided deafness.

Single-sided hearing loss, also known as unilateral hearing loss, is a condition in which you’re completely unable to hear out of one of your ears. Single-Sided Deafness can be difficult to live with, but these 7 tips will help make it a little easier.

Aruna has been playing musical chairs for some time now. The 43-year-old from LA has single-sided hearing loss – and she isn’t alone. Every year, this condition has nearly 60,000 new people in the United States playing musical chairs to hear better. Even worse, one in every 1,000 children is born with unilateral hearing loss.

So how does Aruna cope with her unilateral hearing loss? For one, she always arrives at work meetings early so that she can choose the seat that allows her functioning ear to face the speaker. Unfortunately, she admits it doesn’t always work because her boss likes to move around.

When she’s out at a restaurant with friends, she quickly assesses the table to make sure she’s in the chair that gives her both the best ability to hear her friends and the server.

Aruna plays musical chairs to make sure she is in the best position to hear other people, but it’s not always easy. Activities that once would have been no-brainers now require some significant forethought and reorganization, which has caused Aruna to develop some mild anxiety about the possibility of arriving somewhere late and needing to ask others to accommodate her.

It seemed like Aruna had to settle for a life of always being on-guard about her unilateral hearing loss, but then she learned some tips for living with single-sided deafness that changed how she manages her condition. Here are the 7 best ways that people like Aruna use to live better lives with single-sided hearing loss:

1. Let Others Know About Your Single-Sided Deafness

It doesn’t help you to hide the fact that you’re unable to hear out of one ear. People are able to, and often want to, help and accommodate. But they can only do so if they are aware that you struggle to hear them when they’re on your “bad ear” even when they are standing right next to you.

It’s likely that you had no problem telling your family and close friends, but you may often struggle with telling co-workers, bosses, baristas, servers, and strangers about your hearing loss condition.

Telling people about single-sided hearing loss is a lot like pulling off an adhesive bandage. It gets harder if you wait and it gets more painfully awkward if you try to dance around the issue slowly. That’s why the best action is to get it over with quickly, the earlier the better.

The ideal time to inform them is when you’re meeting them for the first time, during introductions. This helps to eliminate any awkwardness in the future if you have to ask them to repeat what they have said.

2. Specify What You Need to Cope with Unilateral Hearing Loss

Be as clear as possible when you have to tell others how they may be able to help you hear better. For example, asking them to sit on your left or right side or look at you directly when speaking leaves no room for uncertainty.

Because single-sided hearing loss isn’t visible, it’s just too easy for those not close to you to forget that you’re unable to hear in one ear. You should be prepared to gently remind them how they can help you, but also don’t be afraid to let them know your needs. Most people are ready to help if you ask, so there’s no need for you to suffer in silence.

3. Use Non-Verbal Cues When Speaking with Someone

Constantly interrupting a conversation or story is a good way to get everyone involved – including yourself – annoyed at the whole situation. So instead of verbally interrupting a conversation, you may be having, indicate that you need someone to speak louder by cupping your hand behind your functioning ear. This sends a clear message that the speaker needs to speak up while letting the conversation still flow on its natural course.
Unable to hear your granddaughter tell you about her day? Lean a little bit closer to her so you can hear her better without invading her personal space. This is also an easy and subtle way to remind her to speak into your good ear.

4. Be Comfortable About Your Single-Sided Hearing: It Puts Others at Ease

Many people get nervous because they’re uncertain how to act when they meet someone who has a special need that goes unaddressed. Don’t let their imagination run wild – instead, address your hearing condition with them in an easy and straightforward manner. Demonstrating that you’re comfortable talking about your hearing challenges helps others relax.

If you’re comfortable doing so, encourage others to ask questions about your condition. If all else fails, try a little humor. Laughter breaks down barriers between people and it makes others less hesitant to try again to have a conversation with you. Try a joke like:

So I told my hearing specialist as he looked into my left ear (the bad one), “I think I’ve got single-sided hearing loss!”
“Ok,” she said. “What are the symptoms?”
I looked at her a little confused. “It’s a popular TV show with a kid named Bart. But what’s that got to do with my problem?”

Not only are jokes a great ice-breaker, but they can also help others remember more about your condition. For example, if you incorporate which ear you can’t hear with (as shown above), they’ll more easily remember which side to stand on.

5. Interrupt in Moderation

So this may seem like a contradiction to tip number three but remember that there are always exceptions to the rules – even when it comes to hearing loss. If you have unilateral hearing loss, sometimes it’s necessary to interrupt the conversation to ask for clarification. Just remember that like all good things, interrupting should be done in moderation.

That being said, try to rely on your comprehension skills to fill in any missing conversation gaps. For instance, if you miss a few words in a social conversation, you may be able to gather what was meant after the speaker continues to speak for a few sentences. Give it some time to try to figure it out, and if you still need clarification, feel free to interrupt. Again, this is where letting people know about your condition comes in handy since they’ll probably be willing to accommodate your requests if they know where you’re coming from.

6. Repeat What You Think You Heard

If you do need to interrupt and ask for clarification, there are a couple of ways to make sure you get all the information you need. When asking for clarification, make sure you voice what you think you have heard, then ask for verification to make sure it’s correct. Doing this helps out both you and the speaker, since you’ll get the clarification you need, and the speaker won’t have to repeat everything they just said. This also reminds them that you have single-sided hearing loss and need them to speak clearly in your good ear.

7. Explore Hearing Aids for Single-Sided Hearing Loss

Advanced hearing aids today can transfer sound wirelessly from the impacted side of your head to the other ear or compensate for single-sided deafness. (Wondering whether it’s better to get one or two hearing aids? Read How Many Hearing Aids Does One Person Need?) You may also want to research advances in new hearing technology…

8. Consider Treating Your Unilateral Hearing Loss

It’s possible to live with single-sided hearing without reducing your quality of life beyond just getting yourself and others accustomed to the condition, which requires some patience and a willingness to be accommodating. While most people are more than happy to help, there have been several advances in hearing technology that can treat your unilateral hearing loss.

Bone-anchored implants, for example, are surgical implants that bypass the outer ear canal altogether and send sounds straight to your inner ear. Contralateral routing of signal (CROS) and bilateral contralateral routing of signal (BiCROS) hearing aids are specifically designed for people who suffer from total hearing loss in one ear, while also having some level of hearing loss in their “good” ear. In addition, cochlear implants are being performed on people with single-sided hearing. Cochlear implants help restore bilateral hearing because it restores hearing in your “bad” ear, whereas options like CROS send the sounds to your “good” ear only. What’s the difference? Unless you restore hearing in both ears, it’ll always be a little difficult to determine where sounds are coming from.

When Single-Sided Hearing Loss Is a Problem

Sensorineural hearing loss is the kind of hearing loss in which the tiny nerves in the ear are damaged or die. Once this happens, this part of your body doesn’t have a way to heal itself. It typically gets progressively worse as you get older, but it’s not caused by aging.

The most common culprit is noise, though diet, exercise, lifestyle choices, and some medications also play a part.

When you experience the “sudden” kind, the hearing is lost typically in one ear over a period of several days. Over this short timeframe, sounds slowly become more and more muffled. The ear loses its ability to hear certain frequencies or pitches.

As the unilateral hearing loss progresses, you’ll notice that understanding becomes more difficult and sounds may become grating. Without these frequencies, you can’t hear the subtle changes in a human voice as a person speaks. Without your full range of pitches, the complexities that make music or other sounds so sweet are lost.

Is Unilateral Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss Treatable?

Unlike the sensorineural hearing loss that happens over a matter of years, SSHL is often treatable and reversible. Tell your hearing specialist that the hearing loss was sudden to ensure you get a proper diagnosis and treatment.

If not treated promptly during the initial few days, the hearing loss may become permanent and irreversible. But if treated quickly, around 50% of patients will recover most of the hearing they had before the symptoms started.

In around 15% of cases, a hearing professional can identify a single primary cause. They can then treat this cause and reduce any inflammation that resulted.

Inflammation wreaks havoc anywhere it’s present. It finishes what the cause started, stealing your hearing.

What Causes Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss?

Once diagnosed as SSHL, the hearing professional gets to work identifying the cause. Some of the most common causes include:

  • Poor blood circulation / High blood pressure
  • Head trauma
  • A very loud noise (such as a gunshot, firecracker, or lightning at close range)
  • Lyme disease
  • Meniere Disease
  • Weak blood vessels (usually from diabetes)
  • Poisonous snake bite
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • A tumor
  • Neurologic diseases
  • Ototoxic drugs

Ototoxic drugs include any drug that causes nerve damage in the inner ear. These include:

  • Some industrial-strength solvents & cleaners
  • Common OTC painkillers that are taken several times a week over a long period of time (Tylenol, Advil, Aleve, aspirin)
  • Opiates
  • Some antibiotics
  • Some diuretics
  • Chemo drugs

Bring any medications you’re taking, prescription or otherwise, when you visit a hearing professional.

How Common Is Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss in One Ear?

One out of 5000 people each year will be diagnosed with sudden deafness. That’s about 4000 per year.

Most sufferers are under 50. Ninety percent of SSHL happens in one ear.

People most commonly become aware of this concerning form of hearing loss when waking up to an alarm. One side sounds louder than the other. Or they notice it when they put a phone up to the affected ear. In rare instances, people hear a “pop” just before the condition starts to progress.

You might also experience vertigo (extreme dizziness) and tinnitus (ringing of the ear) as the world gets quieter.

Researchers are studying this phenomenon. They want to learn more about why it happens and how to improve the success rate among those who do get diagnosed early.

Still not sure how to handle your single-sided hearing loss? Consider speaking with a hearing specialist to find out your options.

Page medically reviewed by Kevin St. Clergy, Audiologist, on April 28, 2020.

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