Sudden hearing loss is typically experienced as a dramatic reduction in hearing, usually in one ear, in 72 hours or less. Any new or sudden hearing loss should be taken seriously, as the sooner it is diagnosed, the better the chances of addressing it are. If you or a loved one has suddenly developed hearing loss, see your doctor right away.
Also known as sudden sensorineural hearing loss, or SSNHL, it occurs all at once or over the course of several days. About one out of every 5,000 adults experiences sudden-onset hearing loss annually and it affects men and women in their mid-40’s to mid-50’s equally.
What Causes Sudden Deafness?
Unfortunately, knowing the cause of sudden hearing loss is very difficult. In fact, a cause can be identified in only 10 to 15 percent of diagnosed cases. Aside from its rapid onset, there isn’t much else that can be used to help identify why it is occurring. While the cause of sudden hearing loss cannot be determined with certainty, studies are ongoing, and scientists have been able to pinpoint some possible risk factors, like:
- Bacterial infection
- Viral infection
- Inner ear disorders, especially Meniere’s disease
- Tumors (e.g. acoustic neuroma)
- Some drugs (ototoxic medications) can cause hearing loss as a side effect, especially if taken in high doses
- Neurologic diseases or disorders (e.g. multiple sclerosis)
- Head injury or trauma
- Autoimmune diseases (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis)
- Circulation issues (e.g. vasculitis)
There are usually other symptoms associated with SSNHL, like dizziness, balance issues, or even vertigo. Other patients have experienced tinnitus (a ringing or buzzing in the ears), or feeling like your ear needs to pop.
No matter the cause, the important thing to focus us on is seeing an audiologist as soon as you notice a difference. Getting care from a hearing care professional as early as possible can be the difference between regaining your hearing or not.
What Are The Symptoms Of SSHL?
As with most conditions, people experience sudden hearing loss differently from one another. Some wake up after a night of sleep and notice that their hearing isn’t the same. Others don’t notice until they use a phone or headphones, where their change in hearing is obvious, especially if it’s happening in only one ear. In other cases, SSNHL is preceded by a loud and noticeable “pop,” which can sometimes be alarming, but also very clearly alerts you that something is wrong.
What Does Sudden Hearing Loss Feel Like?
Some patients report a feeling of fullness in the affected ear. Others describe a strange feeling on the side of the head affected, sometimes paired with a sudden ringing in the ears (tinnitus), or dizziness. In many cases, the feeling of fullness can be confusing, as the person may think their ears are clogged, not that something more serious is happening. The good news is you can do a small test to figure out what’s what.
Try this out: Hum aloud to yourself. With normal hearing, you hear the sound equally in both ears. If you do this when you have new hearing loss in one of your ears, the humming will shift to one side or the other. If the humming is louder in the affected ear, then your hearing loss is likely due to a blockage, like from a cold or earwax buildup. But if the humming is louder in the non-affected ear, then it’s likely the hearing loss is due to recent nerve damage, which means seeking medical attention immediately is key.
How Is Sudden Deafness Diagnosed?
The first step in figuring out why your hearing is different is to set up an appointment with a hearing healthcare specialist, an audiologist. An audiologist will perform a variety of different tests to try and pinpoint what is going on with your ears.
The first hearing test is called pure tone audiometry, which is used to measure hearing loss. The test can also determine the range of hearing loss in decibels. If at least three connected frequencies demonstrate a hearing loss of 30 decibels or more, then you will be diagnosed with SSNHL. Once diagnosed, more tests can be done to try and discover the cause of the sudden hearing loss, like blood tests, MRIs, and balance tests. These are some ways your audiologist can work to try and figure out why you’re experiencing hearing loss in the first place. Since sudden hearing loss is often caused by an underlying issue, identifying the issue is a great way to address your hearing loss.
Working with an audiologist to investigate your SSNHL is essential in finding the treatment you need. And as we’ve stated before, the sooner you get treatment the more likely you are to return to normal hearing.
How Is Sudden Deafness Treated?
Treatments for sudden hearing loss may be limited, but they’re still critical. In fact, 85% of those who receive timely medical attention are able to regain some or all of their hearing. The most common treatment for sudden hearing loss are steroids, specifically corticosteroids, as they suppress inflammation. Steroids can be given either in pill form, or as an injection behind the eardrum.
Steroids should be used as soon as possible, and many doctors will recommend their use before all test results have been received. Why? Because when treatment is delayed, even just two to four weeks, it’s less likely to reverse or reduce permanent hearing loss.
If your doctor discovers the underlying cause of your sudden hearing loss, then additional treatment can be started as well. For example, if your audiologist has determined an infection is the cause of your SSNHL, then you may be prescribed antibiotics. Or, if an autoimmune condition has caused your immune system to attack the inner ear, you may be given drugs to suppress the immune system.
In severe cases, when your sudden hearing loss doesn’t respond to treatments and/or if you’re experiencing SSNHL in both ears, then your doctor may recommend the use of hearing aids or even cochlear implants. Treatment should be customized to your needs, so always consult with a doctor to be sure you’re getting the treatment that’s best for you.
Sudden Hearing Loss: Does Hearing Come Back?
As of now, studies have shown that treating sudden hearing loss within 72 hours of onset is the best way to regain some or all of your hearing. This is usually the case for patients who have success with corticosteroid treatment, those experiencing mild, moderate, and even severe hearing loss. These patients are categorized as being in the “steroid-effective zone,” and have a 75% chance of recovery through steroids.
However, patients with profound hearing loss, which is defined as a complete loss of hearing, patients who experience vertigo/dizziness, or those above the age of 65, unfortunately have a much lower chance of regaining their hearing. In these situations, you and your doctor will want to consider more aggressive treatments to try and bring your hearing back. It can take up to six weeks for normal hearing to return after treatment.
Preventing Sudden Hearing Loss
Living a healthy lifestyle is the number one way you can prevent sudden hearing loss. Since head trauma, infectious diseases, and circulatory problems are all associated with sudden hearing loss, preventing those issues is a good first step to take.
There are a variety of lifestyle changes you can enact:
- Watch your weight
- Get enough sleep
- Practice mindfulness
- Yoga and meditation are a great way to keep your mind and body relaxed, which is always good for your health!
- Don’t smoke
- Always wear a helmet when playing contact sports, riding a bike, skiing, etc.
- Treat sinus infections as soon as you start experiencing symptoms
And finally, take a look at the medications you’re taking to see if any of them could be impacting your hearing. As we’ve discussed, certain ototoxic medications are known to negatively impact the human auditory system. Check with your doctor to see if any of them are impacting your hearing. There may be alternative medication you can take that won’t affect your hearing.