How You “Hear” Humming Gives Clue to Cause of Hearing Loss

Suddenly not being able to hear as well as usual is frightening. Does it mean you are going deaf or becoming hard of hearing? Not always — in fact, not usually, and now new research has identified an easy way to get reassurance without having to visit a doctor.

There are several kinds of hearing loss — the most serious being sensorineural, typically caused by aging, disease and birth injuries or other traumas, which is often permanent. More often, though, hearing loss is “conductive” and temporary. Some cases of conductive hearing loss will self-correct or can be easily solved by addressing the root cause, which can include having fluid in the middle ear, allergies, an ear infection or simply a wax buildup. How do you know which is which? Thanks to a simple test, you can quickly put your mind at ease.


For more than a century, a screening called the Weber test (using a tuning fork) has been the most common test for hearing loss. This is done by banging the fork against a hard surface so it vibrates, then placing it on the midline (visualize a line going down the middle of your forehead, through your nose, etc.) of the patient’s forehead. You then report if the resulting sound is in the midline or in one ear only. In the latter instance (conductive hearing loss), the ear in which you hear the sound is generally blocked.

A new study by David Foyt, MD, clinical associate professor of clinical surgery in the divisions of otolaryngology and neurosurgery at the Albany Medical Center, Capital Region Ear Institute, and Nora Perkins, MD, have together identified one easy do-it-yourself method to test for conductive hearing loss. (Note: This is not intended to substitute for consultation with a physician, but instead can enable individuals with an ear that feels plugged or suddenly doesn’t seem to hear so well to relax and wait a few days to see if the condition clears.) It’s a simple test that works for children as well as adults, says Dr. Foyt, but he cautions that it is effective at evaluating conductive hearing loss only, which is almost never an urgent problem. If any loss persists more than a few days, though, he says to see your doctor.

Here’s how the test works. If you have a plugged ear or experience sudden difficulty hearing in one ear, hum a note. If you hear the hum in the “sick” ear, this indicates you probably have a conductive hearing loss that will likely get better on its own. Hearing it in the other side may indicate a more serious nerve hearing loss — if this condition lasts longer than just a few days, schedule a visit with your doctor for evaluation. Hearing it in the midline means hearing is similar in both ears and