Is your hearing loss temporary or permanent?

Imagine if you woke up one morning and noticed that you suddenly could not hear as well. It may be one ear or both, but suddenly things that you normally hear with ease are inaudible. You may feel like your ear is plugged or muffled, or you may not feel any pressure at all. 

Your first and natural reaction may be to panic, but the most important thing to remember is to stay calm. There are many reasons for sudden hearing loss, some that are temporary and others permanent, and it depends on your recent activities and health.

This experience could be a sign of sudden hearing loss. 

The Urgency of Sudden Hearing Loss 

Sudden hearing loss is considered a medical emergency in the field of audiology.

Sudden sensorineural hearing loss is when you notice a significant shift in your hearing, with no apparent reason behind it. Many times, sudden hearing loss is caused by a bacterial or viral infection and can be treated if caught in time. It is important to see an Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) physician or audiologist within the first two to three days of onset.

The audiologist will perform a full diagnostic hearing evaluation to rule out any outer or middle ear concerns and determine the extent of the sudden hearing loss. The ENT will then prescribe a steroid treatment that can sometimes help restore part or all of your hearing. Following treatment, you will revisit the audiologist to determine the effectiveness of the steroid treatment. Treatment must be administered within the first two weeks following onset, otherwise, the hearing loss will often be irreversible. 

Vital Questions to Determine If You Need to See a Doctor Right Away

If you ever find yourself in this situation, it is important to take into consideration your listening environment over the past few days.

Were you recently exposed to several hours of very loud noise?

If you attended a loud concert, were in a big factory around heavy equipment and machines, or went hunting/to a gun range and did not wear any form of hearing protection, this sudden hearing loss could be due to noise exposure.

Exposure to loud noises over a long period of time can damage the hair cells within our inner ear. These hair cells are small fragile structures that contract in response to sound which triggers the signals that are sent to our brain to say that we heard something. When these hair cells are damaged, their physical shape changes and they no longer send consistent signals to the brain to say sound is present. This physical damage to the hair cells leads to hearing loss.

Even one instance of noise exposure over a long period of time can cause this feeling of hearing loss, making it feel sudden. 

When did you notice that sound was muffled or changed?

The rule of thumb is to stay within environments that are 85 decibels or less for no longer than 8 hours. Think about a time you went to a loud concert. You may have had the greatest time listening to great music while screaming the lyrics at the top of your lungs.

As you were leaving, did you notice that everything sounded muffled? Did you have a high-pitched ringing or buzzing in either of your ears? This is because you were in such a loud environment for a long period of time, and your ears are warning you of the damage.

Although this is still serious, this is not sudden hearing loss. The good thing is that noise exposure hearing loss can sometimes be temporary and will return within a few hours to a day of being exposed. If it persists for a few days, visit an audiologist to get a hearing evaluation.

Have you had a cold or ear infection recently?

If you were not exposed to noise, another good question to ask yourself is have you recently suffered from a cold or ear infection? These both can affect our hearing by filling our middle ear with mucoid fluid causing our eardrum and middle ear bones, the ossicles, to not transfer sound to the inner ear.

Common descriptions of this include feeling like you are underwater or that your ears are plugged. If you have not been treated for this head cold/infection, seek medical attention from your primary care physician or an ENT. By resolving the cold or infection, your hearing should be restored!

Have you had an increase in stress or physical activity recently?

If neither loud noise nor recent sickness apply to you, the final question you should ask yourself is have you had an increase in stress or physical activity lately? Stress and physical activity both can change the hormone balance within our body. We also have hormones within our inner ears. Therefore, any significant change in hormones can affect our ability to hear.

These all describe instances of temporary sudden hearing loss, meaning that they will resolve over time or with treatment. This is great as your hearing can return to its original state! 

Types of Hearing Loss

Aside from sudden sensorineural hearing loss, there are other types that are categorized based on the affected part of the auditory system and the nature of the impairment. 

Other types of hearing loss include:

  • Conductive Hearing Loss: This type of hearing loss occurs when sound waves cannot pass efficiently through the outer ear canal to the eardrum and the tiny bones (ossicles) of the middle ear. It may result from earwax blockage, fluid in the middle ear, ear infections, or problems with the ear canal or eardrum.
  • Sensorineural Hearing Loss: Sensorineural hearing loss is caused by damage to the inner ear (cochlea) or the auditory nerve. It is often permanent and can be caused by factors such as aging, exposure to loud noise, genetic predisposition, certain medications, and diseases affecting the inner ear.
  • Mixed Hearing Loss: Mixed hearing loss is a combination of both conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. It involves problems in both the outer or middle ear and the inner ear or auditory nerve.
  • Central Hearing Loss: Central hearing loss occurs when there is a problem with the central auditory nervous system, particularly in the pathways and processing centers of the brain. This type of hearing loss may affect the individual’s ability to interpret or understand sound, even if the ear structures are functioning normally.
  • Auditory Neuropathy Spectrum Disorder (ANSD): ANSD is a specific type of hearing loss where the transmission of signals from the inner ear to the brain is disrupted. While the outer hair cells in the cochlea may function normally, the auditory nerve has difficulty transmitting signals to the brain.
  • Functional Hearing Loss: This type of hearing loss is not related to any physical damage to the ear structures but is instead associated with psychological or emotional factors. Individuals with functional hearing loss may perceive hearing difficulties, but there is no identifiable organic cause.

It’s important to note that hearing loss can vary in degree, ranging from mild to profound, and it can affect different frequencies of sound. Additionally, age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) is common and typically involves a combination of sensorineural and high-frequency hearing loss.

Understanding Temporary Hearing Loss

Temporary hearing loss, also known as transient hearing loss, refers to a situation where an individual experiences a temporary reduction in their ability to hear sounds. This type of hearing loss is typically reversible and may result from various factors. 

Below are some common causes and examples of temporary hearing loss:

  • Earwax Blockage: Accumulation of earwax in the ear canal can cause temporary hearing loss. Earwax may block the passage of sound waves to the eardrum. Removal of the earwax often restores normal hearing.
  • Fluid in the Middle Ear (Otitis Media): Inflammation or infection of the middle ear can lead to the accumulation of fluid, causing temporary conductive hearing loss. This is common in conditions such as ear infections, colds, or sinus infections.
  • Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL): Exposure to loud noises, even for a short duration, can result in temporary hearing loss. This may occur after attending a loud concert, being close to explosions, or working in noisy environments. With time away from the noise, hearing often returns to normal.
  • Barotrauma: Changes in air pressure, such as during air travel or scuba diving, can lead to barotrauma. This pressure imbalance can affect the middle ear and cause temporary hearing loss. Once the pressure equalizes, hearing usually returns.
  • Ototoxic Medications: Some medications, especially certain antibiotics, diuretics, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can cause temporary hearing loss as a side effect. Discontinuing the medication or adjusting the dosage may resolve the issue.
  • Head Trauma: Trauma to the head, such as a blow to the ear or head, can cause temporary hearing loss. This may result from damage to the ear structures or the auditory nerve. In many cases, the hearing loss improves over time.
  • Ear Infections: Infections affecting the ear, whether in the external ear canal or the middle ear, can lead to temporary hearing loss. Prompt treatment with antibiotics or other appropriate measures often resolves the issue.
  • Stress and Fatigue: Stress and fatigue can affect overall health, including the auditory system. Temporary hearing loss may occur in situations of extreme stress or exhaustion. Addressing the underlying stressors and getting adequate rest can help restore hearing.

It’s crucial to differentiate between temporary and permanent hearing loss, as the management and implications for each type differ. 

If you experience sudden or persistent hearing loss, it is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional or an audiologist for a thorough evaluation and appropriate management.

Treatment Options for Temporary Hearing Loss

The treatment for temporary hearing loss depends on the underlying cause. Here are some common causes of temporary hearing loss and their respective treatment options:

  • Earwax Blockage: Treatment often involves the removal of the impacted earwax. This can be done by a healthcare professional using specialized tools, or in some cases, over-the-counter earwax removal drops may be effective.
  • Fluid in the Middle Ear (Otitis Media): Antibiotics are commonly prescribed to treat bacterial infections causing fluid buildup in the middle ear. Decongestants or antihistamines may also be recommended for cases related to allergies or sinus congestion.
  • Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL): Prevention is key. Avoiding exposure to loud noises and using ear protection (such as earplugs or earmuffs) in noisy environments can prevent temporary and permanent hearing damage. In most cases, the hearing loss will improve over time with reduced noise exposure.
  • Barotrauma: For barotrauma due to changes in air pressure, equalizing pressure during activities like flying or diving can help. Chewing gum, swallowing, or using the Valsalva maneuver (gently blowing with the nose pinched) may assist in equalizing ear pressure.
  • Medications: If medication is causing temporary hearing loss, the healthcare provider may adjust the dosage or switch to an alternative medication with fewer auditory side effects.
  • Head Trauma: Depending on the severity of the head trauma, treatment may include rest, pain management, and monitoring for any signs of complications. In some cases, surgical intervention may be necessary.
  • Ear Infections: Treatment involves addressing the underlying infection. Antibiotics may be prescribed for bacterial infections, while antifungal medications are used for fungal infections. Over-the-counter pain relievers can help manage discomfort.
  • Stress and Fatigue: Managing stress and getting adequate rest are important for overall health, including the auditory system. Relaxation techniques, stress management strategies, and sufficient sleep may contribute to the resolution of temporary hearing loss related to stress and fatigue.

Common Causes of Permanent Hearing Loss

Often though, hearing loss is permanent and will not return to its original state. Long-term noise exposure like working around heavy equipment without hearing protection for many years, can cause permanent hearing loss. Age-related hearing loss, also known as presbycusis, is permanent.

Think about your body as a whole. As we age, so does our entire body because of the active lifestyles we live. This happens to our ears as well.

Throughout life, our ears are constantly exposed to noise. Our world is a very noisy place, and we cannot always predict when loud noises will be around. Therefore, as we get older hearing loss becomes more common.

Exposure to ototoxic medications can also cause permanent hearing loss. These medications commonly include antibiotics and chemotherapy/radiation. The main goal of these medications is to treat the health condition, but they often have side effects that can damage the hair cells within our inner ears. Although this is not desired, the focus of your medical treatment is to help manage and treat your chronic conditions and not prevent hearing loss.

Other medical conditions can cause permanent hearing loss including diabetes, high blood pressure, a stroke or traumatic brain injury, or heart condition. Diabetes and high blood pressure affect blood flow and oxygen levels within the blood throughout our body, including in our inner ear. This change in blood flow and oxygen can affect the health of the hair cells, causing hearing loss.

Strokes and traumatic brain injuries commonly affect the auditory processing center within our brain, not our inner ears. This still can cause hearing loss, more specifically problems with understanding what people are saying. For permanent hearing loss, it is important to have annual hearing evaluations to monitor the hearing loss and ensure it is not changing suddenly. If you have already diagnosed hearing loss and notice a significant change in your hearing, reach out to your audiologist to discuss the next steps. 

Treatment Options for Permanent Hearing Loss

Permanent hearing loss is generally irreversible, but there are several treatment options and interventions available to help individuals manage and cope with hearing impairment. 

The most suitable option depends on the type and degree of hearing loss, as well as individual preferences. Here are some common treatment options for permanent hearing loss:

  • Hearing Aids: Hearing aids are devices designed to amplify sound and improve hearing. They come in various styles and sizes, and modern digital hearing aids can be programmed to address specific hearing loss patterns. An audiologist can assess the individual’s hearing and recommend the most appropriate hearing aid.
  • Cochlear Implants: Cochlear implants are electronic devices surgically implanted in the inner ear to bypass damaged hair cells and directly stimulate the auditory nerve. They are most beneficial for individuals with severe to profound sensorineural hearing loss who do not benefit significantly from hearing aids.
  • Bone-Anchored Hearing Aids (BAHA): BAHA is a surgically implanted device that uses bone conduction to transmit sound directly to the inner ear. It is often used for individuals with conductive or mixed hearing loss who may not benefit from traditional hearing aids.
  • Middle Ear Implants: These implants are surgically placed in the middle ear and are designed to improve hearing in individuals with sensorineural, conductive, or mixed hearing loss. They work by directly vibrating the middle ear bones.
  • Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs): ALDs are devices that can be used in conjunction with hearing aids to enhance communication in specific situations. Examples include FM systems, captioned telephones, and alerting devices that signal the presence of sounds like doorbells or alarms.
  • Speech and Lip Reading Training: Individuals with hearing loss may benefit from training in speech reading (lip reading) to better understand spoken language by observing facial expressions and lip movements.
  • Sign Language and Communication Strategies: For individuals with profound hearing loss or those who prefer visual communication, learning sign language can be a valuable skill. Additionally, developing effective communication strategies, such as using visual cues or written communication, can enhance interaction.
  • Ear Surgery (Stapedectomy, Ossiculoplasty, etc.): In some cases of conductive hearing loss, surgical procedures such as stapedectomy or ossiculoplasty may be considered to repair or replace damaged components of the middle ear.

It’s essential for individuals with permanent hearing loss to consult with an audiologist or otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist) to determine the most appropriate treatment plan based on their specific needs and the nature of their hearing loss. 

Additionally, ongoing support, education, and counseling are often integral parts of managing permanent hearing impairment.

Get help for your hearing loss

If you have any concerns about your hearing, even if you believe it is only temporary, it is important to get evaluated by an audiologist. They can perform a full diagnostic evaluation which will include looking in your ears with our otoscope light, getting pure tone air and bone conduction hearing thresholds, and speech recognition scores. This information can give a full picture of your ears and hearing health, which can act as both a baseline of hearing and help develop the best treatment plan.

Hopefully, your shift in hearing is only temporary and can be resolved by getting an ear cleaning, treating any infections, or by giving your ears quiet time following noise exposure. If it is determined to be permanent hearing loss, finding this out can be a difficult thing to process and accept, but your audiologist will work with you every step of the way to determine what plan works best for your needs and lifestyle.

What distinguishes a speech therapist from an audiologist?

It’s crucial to understand the differences between a speech therapist vs audiologist when seeking assistance for hearing or communication concerns.

Audiologists are healthcare professionals specializing in hearing and balance disorders. They conduct comprehensive hearing evaluations, diagnose hearing conditions, and provide solutions like hearing aids or rehabilitation.

On the other hand, speech therapists, also known as speech-language pathologists, focus on communication disorders, encompassing speech, language, voice, and fluency challenges. They work with individuals across all age groups to enhance their communication abilities.

While both fields are essential for overall well-being, audiologists primarily address hearing-related issues, while speech therapists tackle a broader range of communication difficulties.

Dr. Emily McMahan

Emily obtained her Doctorate in Audiology from Salus University. She has been a private practice owner for the past 6.5 years and is a commissioned officer for the Mayor’s Senior Advisory Commission. Regularly hosting Audiology students is an important aspect of her private practice. You can find Emily at Alaska Hearing and Tinnitus Center.
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Dr. Emily McMahan

Emily obtained her Doctorate in Audiology from Salus University. She has been a private practice owner for the past 6.5 years and is a commissioned officer for the Mayor’s Senior Advisory Commission. Regularly hosting Audiology students is an important aspect of her private practice. You can find Emily at Alaska Hearing and Tinnitus Center.
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