The common cold can cause fluid to build up and may make a person temporarily lose their ability to hear. Hearing loss usually worsens when a person has a cold, but treatment can help relieve symptoms.

A cold is a viral infection that enters the body through tiny airborne droplets in the air. It may cause congestion in a person’s:

  • throat
  • nose
  • sinuses

Rarely, prolonged congestion may lead to an infection that can lead to permanent hearing loss.

This article will explain how a person can get hearing loss from a cold. It also explores possible complications, prevention, and when to consult a doctor.

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Every year, adults in the United States get an average of two to three colds, while children tend to get more.

A common cold is an infection affecting the upper respiratory tract, including the nose, throat, sinuses, and larynx. Common colds commonly cause nasal or sinus congestion, which gives the feeling of stuffiness in the nose.

When a person has congestion, the fluid and mucus in the nose and sinuses may block the Eustachian tubes, leading to muffled or temporary loss of hearing. The Eustachian tubes connect the middle ear to the back of the throat, drain fluid and prevent buildup in the middle ear.

The buildup of fluid in the middle ear can make it difficult for sound waves to vibrate through the ear and the eardrum. On average, this buildup decreases a person’s hearing by 24 decibels, making sounds appear muffled. Thicker fluid can cause hearing loss by up to 45 decibels.

Doctors refer to this hearing loss as conductive, which is usually temporary. A person’s hearing improves as soon as the other symptoms pass.

Other causes

Aside from the common cold, several infections can cause sudden hearing loss. These include:

Some researchers believe infections occur through a direct viral infection on the cochlear nerve, which transfers audio information from the ear to the brain. It may also occur due to the invasion of the fluid space or soft tissues of the cochlea through the blood or cerebrospinal fluid.

However, more research is necessary, as the authors reported inconclusive findings.

An ear infection is one of the most common complications of a common cold. Aside from difficulty hearing or hearing muffled sounds, some signs that a person has an ear infection include:

Persistent inflammation of the middle ear, which doctors call chronic suppurative otitis media, causes conductive hearing loss, but it may also damage the middle ear ossicles. This condition may result in permanent sensorineural hearing loss.

Learn more about otitis media.

The persistent fluid buildup on the inner ear can also put pressure on the hair cells or nerves in the cochlea and lead to injury and permanent hearing loss.

People with chronic and long-term ear issues may consult an otolaryngologist, or an ear, nose, and throat specialist, so that they can conduct an ear exam.

A 2021 study found that acute respiratory tract infections increase a person’s risk of sudden sensorineural hearing loss, with the highest risk within the first month after exposure to the infection.

Without treatment, ear infections can also lead to:

Find out more about ear infections in adults.

Cold-induced hearing loss typically goes away with the cold. There is no cure for a cold because a virus causes it.

Read more about relieving cold symptoms.

However, over-the-counter medications can help ease symptoms. Nasal decongestants can help clear plugged ears and sinuses. Resting and drinking plenty of fluids can also help.

Other treatment options include:

  • pain relievers for ear pain
  • antibiotics if bacteria cause the infection
  • ear drops if there is pus in the ear canal

Learn more about remedies for earache and pain.

Hearing loss due to a cold is often mild and temporary. However, a person needs to speak with a doctor if they experience the following:

  • symptoms lasting for more than 10 days
  • severe or unusual symptoms
  • a child younger than 3 months who is lethargic or has a fever

Other signs to look for include:

  • loss of hearing in one ear
  • an atypical neurologic symptom, such as a weak blink of facial weakness
  • rapidly worsening or sudden loss of hearing

A person can prevent ear infections by:

  • getting vaccinated, including the flu and pneumococcal vaccines
  • not smoking if applicable and avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke
  • drying ears thoroughly after swimming
  • exclusively breastfeeding until a baby is 6 months and continue breastfeeding for at least a year

It is also important not to neglect other symptoms, as this can lead to permanent hearing loss. These symptoms include:

  • ear pain
  • fever
  • longstanding fluid buildup
  • ear infections

Colds commonly result in congestion, which can cause difficulty in hearing. A person can avoid contracting cold viruses by doing the following:

  • maintaining a physical distance from people who are sick
  • avoiding touching contaminated surfaces and then touching the mouth, nose, or eyes
  • wearing a face mask
  • washing hands frequently with soap and water

Learn more about preventing a cold.

It is possible to get hearing loss from a common cold. Temporary hearing loss during a cold occurs when the fluid buildup in the sinuses, throat, and nose blocks the Eustachian tubes and prevents them from draining.

Most temporary hearing losses resolve without treatment. However, a person may also take decongestants can help clear ear and nasal congestion.

Persistent congestion and infection may require treatment to prevent permanent injury to internal ear structures.

Neglected ear infections and longstanding congestion can lead to permanent hearing loss. People should contact a doctor or specialist to discuss ways to prevent or treat the symptoms they are experiencing.