Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Imagine waking up one morning only to realize that your hearing has suddenly and drastically changed for the worse for no apparent reason? Although this is a rare occurrence, it is a scary possibility that affects approximately one in every 5,000 people each year. In most instances sudden sensorineural hearing loss will affect only one ear and becomes more likely to occur the older we get. In addition to sudden onset of hearing loss, most patients will also experience significant tinnitus (or “ringing in the ears”), and occasionally dizziness which makes the whole situation far more disorienting and even frightening.

So what causes sudden hearing loss? There are many speculations as to why this happens which range from something as simple as having fully impacted earwax or an ear infection to more complex scenarios including viruses, trauma, or autoimmune disorders. In order to determine the severity of loss, and, when a baseline audiogram is available, the exact amount of change, a full diagnostic hearing test should be performed along with a full medical evaluation and discussion of treatment options with an otolaryngologist (also known as ENT) within the first few days following onset.

In the event the ear is checked and either ear wax or an ear infection is determined to be the culprit, the treatment is fairly straightforward and involves either removing the cerumen or treating the infected portion of the outer or middle part of the ear. Surprisingly, the specific cause of other types of sudden hearing loss in a given person is able to be reliably diagnosed only 10-15% of the time. Although there are many reports of spontaneous recovery to some types of sudden hearing loss, full evaluation is strongly recommended in all situations nonetheless. When diagnosed and treated properly and efficiently, some degree of recovery, if not a full return to baseline, is observed in approximately half of the cases. The most common form of treatment includes an oral steroid regimen that is typically prescribed by a specialist. Recovery may take anywhere from a few days to several weeks, and unfortunately in some cases, may not occur at all.

The moral of the story? A sudden change in hearing should be considered significant cause for concern and be addressed ASAP! Your audiologist will be able to help you determine the total effect on hearing acuity and will then guide you on to the next steps of the treatment process via referrals and recommendations based on your specific needs. Remember: time is of the essence when it comes to protecting your most valuable tools for communication.

Sources: The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD, 2013)

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