by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

You have a cold and now you notice you can’t hear well out of one or both ears. It/they feel plugged up and you can’t hear well. Now comes the million dollar question. Is this hearing loss just because you have a cold (resulting in fluid in your middle ear) and will resolve itself in a week or two as your cold goes away? Or is this sudden hearing loss caused by a virus attacking your inner ear–in which case this is a medical emergency and needs to be treated now?

For years, most primary care physicians have assumed that it was the former case and told their patients to come back in a couple of weeks if their hearing had not returned. As a result, those people that actually had a viral attack wasted their precious golden hours when treatment could be successful and now are tragically left with a permanent hearing loss.

Fortunately for us, Dr. Jeffery Harris, chief of otolaryngology/head and neck surgery at the University of California, San Diego Medical Center has recently come up with a quick test to separate the two conditions.

Here is all you need to do, assuming that only one ear is “blocked.” Hum out loud. If you hear your voice louder in the blocked ear, the problem is congestion (fluid in the middle ear) and is probably temporary until your cold goes away and your ear clears.

However, if you hear your voice louder in your good ear, this probably indicates a viral attack causing permanent hearing loss if left untreated. If this is your case, seek treatment immediately. This is a true medical emergency and needs to be treated now if you want a chance of getting your hearing back. According to Dr. Harris, your chances of getting your hearing back with immediate treatment are greater than 50%.

If both ears are blocked equally, this little test isn’t going to work (unless you can remember how loud humming sounded before you got the cold–and then apply the above rules). Thus, it is better to err on the side of caution if you have reduced hearing in both ears and seek competent medical help now.

Read my articles “Sudden Hearing Loss Is a Medical Emergency” and “Finding the Right Doctor for Sudden Hearing Loss and Other Ear Problems.” These articles will help you make informed decisions on what you should do next.