Why Does My Hearing Suffer When I Have a Cold?

Hearing Loss + A Head Cold = A Perfect Storm

Posted Mar 12, 2018

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Everyone hates a head cold. The watery eyes, runny nose, and stuffed up feeling are awful. Your ears and throat burn and you barely have the energy to hold up your own head, because it feels like it weighs two tons. And then there is the hearing loss. When I have a head cold, my hearing almost always takes a temporary turn for the worse. While I think this happens for everyone, when you start with less than stellar hearing, to begin with, it can be a big issue.

With a head cold, fluid can build up in the middle ear, making it harder for sounds to travel to the eardrum. This type of hearing loss is called conductive hearing loss because it relates to difficulties in conducting the sound waves from the environment through to the eardrum. Sometimes fluid in the ear can also cause tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Layer this on top of sensorineural hearing loss (hearing loss related to damage to the cochlea or the auditory nerve), and you have trouble. Big trouble. 

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, the average loss in hearing from fluid in the ears is 24 decibels, which is about equivalent to the impact of wearing earplugs. In severe cases, the effect can be as high as 45 decibels, which is the level of conversational speech. This is a huge impact.

The good news is that the additional hearing loss that comes with a cold is usually temporary. And for me, when a head cold finally clears, and my “normal” impaired hearing returns, I am so grateful for it. In fact, I am often amazed at how well I am hearing as if there has been some type of miraculous recovery.

In the meantime, here are my tips for surviving a cold with hearing loss:

1. Rest Up: The goal is to get rid of the cold as quickly as possible and the best way to do this is to rest, drink plenty of fluids and use a humidifier to add moisture to the air. Chicken soup can’t hurt either if you can find someone to make some.

2. Over the Counter Medicine: Try taking a decongestant, which can help shrink inflammation in the nasal passages and help dry up excess fluid. Nasal saline sprays can also help with this.

3. Fess Up: I always try to let people know I will have a little extra trouble hearing when I have a head cold. It is funny because since almost everyone can relate to this, people often do a better job remembering to speak up when I am sick than when I am healthy!