For much of our lives, we take our hearing for granted. But in some cases, people lose significant hearing over the course of a matter of hours or even overnight. While a few people with sudden hearing loss might report a ‘pop’ preceding the condition, it’s often without warning.
What is sudden hearing loss?
It might seem like something out of fiction, but waking up to unexpected hearing loss is a reality for some people. Medically, we diagnose this condition as sudden hearing loss if hearing capabilities diminish at or above 30 decibels in a short time span: from as few as a couple of hours to over a period of three days.
For most people, sudden hearing loss impacts only one ear. In fact, it is the rarest of instances, as only two percent of sudden hearing loss cases include the loss of hearing in both ears.
Conductive and Sensorineural hearing loss
Before diving into common causes of sudden hearing loss, it’s worth noting the difference between the two ways our hearing is impaired. Conductive hearing loss is when there is a blockage within the ear canal that impedes the travel of noise through the canal so that it cannot reach the inner ear. Overwhelmingly, the culprit is a blockage of ear wax buildup. In a vast majority of cases, conductive hearing loss can be reversed so that normal hearing is restored when the obstacle is removed.
Sensorineural hearing loss refers to that which arises when there is damage to the inner ear or the nerves that transmit sound information to the brain. Such is the case of age-related hearing loss, for instance, when the inner ear cells begin to degrade. This type of hearing loss is most often permanent and progressive.
Causes of sudden hearing loss
In cases of sudden conductive hearing loss as caused by an obstruction, an object lodged in the ear might cause the condition, particularly in children. More serious causes such as tumors, both benign or malignant, may be at play. Again, the prognosis here is usually positive and with medical intervention, normal hearing can be restored.
Immediate treatment is critical in cases of sudden sensorineural hearing loss because a majority of cases are caused by viruses. Patients often report that they’ve had a recent illness, such as a respiratory infection, just prior to the sudden loss of their hearing. Other illnesses associated with sudden hearing loss include measles, mumps, rubella, syphilis, and meningitis.
Traumatic brain injuries and other head trauma may cause sudden sensorineural hearing loss by way of damage to the inner ear structure or the nerves that carry information to the brain’s processing centers. Some people with vascular issues experience sudden hearing loss when blood flow is cut off from the inner ear.
Still another cause of sudden hearing loss is prescribed medication. These drugs, known as ototoxic, carry the risk of hearing loss as a side effect. In most instances, both physician and patient will be aware of these potential risks and hearing issues will resolve once dosing is ceased.
Treatment of sudden hearing loss
Because we most often don’t know what the cause of our sudden hearing loss is when it happens, it’s important to seek medical treatment immediately. In the past, medical professionals used to recommend non-treatment. However, these days, we know that beginning an aggressive treatment of steroids predicts a much more successful outcome.
In many cases, sudden hearing loss will spontaneously resolve itself just as quickly as it began.
What if my hearing doesn’t return to normal after sudden hearing loss?
If your sudden hearing loss does not respond to treatment or resolve itself, there are ways you can introduce hearing solutions to improve your listening life. Even if it impacts only one ear, a hearing aid for the affected ear is highly recommended.
We use our binaural hearing, hearing with two ears, to do more than just take in conscious information. In fact, it is the way our ears unconsciously compare the volume of sounds that help us locate them and even ourselves in space. It’s how we know to turn towards a person calling our name and how we can quickly jump out of the way when we hear a blaring car horn as we cross the street.
Schedule a hearing consultation with us
If you are experiencing sudden hearing loss, contact your medical provider immediately. It is your best chance of restoring healthy hearing.
If you think that you might be experiencing hearing loss of another kind, schedule a hearing consultation today. Our team will lead you through a simple hearing exam and get you back on the path to your most vibrant listening life.