Imagine waking up to realize that you’ve lost all hearing in one ear. Do you wait a week to see if anything changes or do you immediately call your physician?
An uncommon condition, some people experience rapid hearing loss in one or both ears which we refer to as Sudden Hearing Loss. You might have no warning, noticing this hearing loss when you wake up or over the course of a few hours. Some people hear a ‘pop’ just before their hearing begins to go.
While we know that at least 1 in 5,000 adults experiences SSHL annually, experts estimate that the actual number may be higher. Many people do not report their experience which causes a gap in the data.
What exactly is Sudden Hearing Loss?
Sudden Hearing Loss is the unexpected and rapid loss of hearing in one or both ears, though a great majority of people with the condition experience it in just one ear. Technically, we refer to this type of hearing loss as Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSHL), which means it is hearing loss that is not caused by an obstruction.
Conductive hearing loss is the more common cause of an abrupt, noticeable change in hearing. The most likely culprit is earwax build up, which will be noticed right away and extracted by your audiologist upon examination. Normal hearing can be immediately restored.
In cases of sensorineural hearing loss, the cause is damage to the inner ear. For people with SSHL, the causes range from an infection to head trauma to tumors.
Likely causes of SSHL:
- Head trauma
- Viral infections (such as meningitis, syphilis, rubella, mumps or measles)
- Ototoxic (dangerous to the ear) medications or painkiller abuse
- Conditions affecting blood flow to the ear, vascular issues
- Tumors (such as acoustic neuroma)
- Multiple Sclerosis or Meniere’s Disease
Is Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss reversible?
Yes, in many cases, SSHL is a reversible condition. For most, they will regain their sense of hearing within fourteen days. As the severity of hearing loss increases, the odds for a full recovery lessen. This is also the case when vertigo is experienced alongside hearing loss. For younger people, a full recovery is more likely.
How is Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss treated?
When we can determine the cause of SSHL, the treatment will address the root of the condition in order to resolve the resulting hearing loss. For instance, if your hearing loss is due to an ototoxic prescription medicine, your medical team will probably discontinue the medication unless the condition it addresses is more threatening than hearing loss. To be sure, when ototoxic medications are prescribed it is with the full understanding of both patient and physician that the risk of temporary or even some permanent hearing loss is worth it weighed against the benefits of the medication.
The most common treatment for sudden hearing loss continues to be steroids. Some medical professionals advocate abstaining from treatment to let the condition resolve itself, as it sometimes does. However, recent research shows that steroid treatment predicts a more successful outcome in most cases.
In rarer cases, sudden hearing loss can become permanent. If this happens, it is recommended that hearing loss be treated with proven interventions like hearing aids or cochlear implants.
Should you see a doctor if you have Sudden Hearing Loss?
Absolutely. For a variety of reasons, seeking treatment immediately upon noticing changes in your hearing health is a prudent choice. The solution may be as simple as removing obstructions, such as earwax. More serious causes can and should be investigated by your physician and an audiologist to determine the best course of treatment. We know that your normal hearing has a higher chance of being restored if you identify and begin treatment as soon as possible.
In the rare cases of SSHL caused by tumors, they can be both benign or malignant, which means the faster you reach a diagnosis the more positive your prognosis tends to be.
In order to prioritize your hearing health and steer yourself toward the healthiest hearing possible, any changes to your ears or hearing should be addressed quickly. This can mean an uncommon event such as SSHL or the more common progressive hearing loss associated with noise exposure and aging.