Sudden Hearing Loss [Causes & Treatment]
If you have experienced a sudden hearing loss, call an Ear, Nose, and Throat Doctor’s office immediately!
Tell the physician’s office that you’ve experienced a sudden hearing loss. They will schedule you to be seen right away.
A sudden hearing loss is an otologic (ENT) emergency!
What is Sudden Hearing Loss?
Sudden hearing loss is a rapid loss of hearing over the course of a day or two.
Different doctors may define this differently; one common definition is losing 30 decibels of hearing over three or more frequencies in less than 72 hours.
It strikes 1 in 5,000 adults every year, often middle-aged adults.
In addition to the sudden loss of hearing, you may feel dizzy, have tinnitus (ringing in the ears), or a feeling that your ears are full.
A sudden hearing loss usually only affects one ear, but you could experience a loss in both ears.
It’s important to take good notes about when your symptoms began, and anything that you think might be related (a new medication, an accident, or a recent illness).
Your doctor will want to know this history in order to diagnose the cause and begin treatment.
Causes of Sudden Hearing Loss
There can be several different causes of sudden hearing loss.
If you experience a rapid decline in hearing, it could happen because of an event that has happened somewhere along the pathway that sound takes from your outer ear to your brain.
As shown in the image below, the cause can be located in the external ear, middle ear, inner ear, or auditory pathway.
Your outer ear could be blocked due to a plug of wax, or may not be able to properly funnel sound as the result of trauma.
In your middle ear, you could have a buildup of fluid, or damage to your eardrum or ossicles due to a blast.
Your inner ear could sustain damage from an infection, Meniere’s disease, or a blow to your head.
Finally, your auditory nerve could have a tumor or a viral infection.
Sudden hearing loss usually shows up on the hearing test as a sensorineural hearing loss, which means that there’s a problem with your inner ear or auditory nerve.
Sudden sensorineural hearing loss usually has no known cause (90% of the time).
About 10 percent of the time, the doctor might be able to pinpoint a cause such as infections, head trauma, or autoimmune diseases.
You may be at higher risk of experiencing sudden sensorineural hearing loss if you have cardiovascular disease, iron deficiency anemia, or diabetes.
You could choose to do nothing and wait, but that’s not a good idea.
About half of people who experience sudden sensorineural hearing loss will recover at least some of their hearing spontaneously in 1 to 2 weeks.
However, you’ll have a much better chance of recovering your hearing if you get prompt treatment from an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) physician.
About 85 percent of people treated by ENTs recover some of their hearing.
The main initial treatment is taking corticosteroids, which are most effective if taken as soon as possible after you experience hearing loss.
Some people have side effects from oral steroid medications, so these are often injected into the ear drum, so that medication can reach the damaged inner ear.
A 2011 NIDCD study found that injecting steroids into the eardrum is just as effective as oral medications and often more comfortable for patients.
If you continue to experience a hearing loss after initial treatment, you can try hearing aids.
Sometimes, the affected ear has so much damage that a hearing aid will not be effective in that ear.
In this case, you can try a cochlear implant or CROS hearing aid.
If you’ve experienced a sudden drop in your hearing over the course of three days or less, you need to call an ENT office right away.
Prompt treatment with steroids has a good chance of helping you recover your hearing.
If you don’t recover all of your hearing, you may consult with a hearing healthcare provider about options such as conventional hearing aids, CROS hearing aids, and cochlear implants.