While many cases of hearing loss develop gradually, some, such as sudden hearing loss, occur quickly and require prompt attention.
Hearing loss affects about 48 million Americans of all ages, including infants born with limited or no hearing. Also called sudden deafness or sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), the condition includes a hearing reduction greater than 30 decibels that happens rapidly or within a 72-hour period.
Sudden hearing loss can occur in one (unilateral) or both (bilateral) ears, and the severity varies from one person to another.
Those with the condition often complain of hearing normally before suddenly experiencing a noticeable drop in sound levels.
Multiple causes exist for sudden hearing loss, but those affected often assume the issue is allergy or cold related because the condition gives them the sensation of plugged up ears. Many patients never find the exact reason for their condition. In fact, just 10 to 15 percent of diagnosed cases have identifiable causes. Because the cause could be something serious, anyone experiencing sudden hearing loss should get medical treatment. Some known common causes include the following.
Neurologic diseases and disorders
Inner ear disorders
A tumor on the nerve connecting the ear and brain
Another possible cause of sudden hearing loss is ototoxic drugs. Most often, the medicine causes damage to the cochlea, and symptoms, such as ringing in the ears or vertigo, develop quickly. Stopping the medication intake usually resolves the hearing loss, but permanent damage is possible. Other possible causes are metabolic disorders, such as diabetes or trauma, such as head injuries.
Diagnosing Sudden Hearing Loss
At the doctor’s office, a series of tests assess each part of the ear to identify structural abnormalities, inflammation, obstructions or other issues that may affect hearing. One test option is pure tone audiometry, which determines if sound is not reaching the inner ear because of an obstruction or if the cause is a sensorineural deficit. This test also helps determine the range of hearing loss. The physician may order an MRI, balancing tests, or blood tests to find the cause of sudden hearing loss.
The most common treatment option for sudden hearing loss, especially when the cause is unknown, is corticosteroids, which reduce inflammation and swelling and help fight illness. Prednisone, a common steroid used, is given in pill form in many cases. Physicians also use an intratympanic corticosteroid therapy, which involves injections. Steroids are injected directly into the middle ear behind the eardrum.
When an earwax buildup is the cause of sudden hearing loss, it is flushed out. Fluid buildup, which could be allergy related, is treated with decongestants and antihistamines. Antibiotics are used for bacterial ear infections that cause hearing loss.