For most people who experience hearing loss, the condition comes on gradually over a period of years. In rare cases, an abrupt loss of hearing occurs with little or no warning. This condition is called sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), and commonly known as sudden deafness.
What is Sudden Deafness?
Sudden deafness is defined as a hearing reduction of 30 dB or greater over three contiguous frequencies, occurring over a period of 72 hours or less. Ninety percent of cases result in unilateral (single-sided) hearing loss, which may be accompanied by dizziness or tinnitus (ringing in the ear).
The severity of the hearing loss varies. Some patients recover completely and without medical intervention in just a few days. Others find their symptoms improve gradually over a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, some people do not recover their hearing loss.
Sometimes, people who experience sudden sensorineural hearing loss put off seeing a doctor because they think their hearing loss is due to wax buildup, allergies, or other common conditions. It is important to see your doctor right away, since delaying the diagnosis and treatment of sudden deafness decreased the chance of hearing recovery.
Develops Sudden Deafness?
Experts estimate that about one to six per every 5,000 people experience sudden deafness every year, although some suspect this number is much higher as the condition often goes undiagnosed.
People of all ages can develop sudden deafness. Most often, it affects adults in their late 40s and early 50s.
What Causes Sudden Deafness?
There are many possible causes for SSHL, but many times, an exact cause cannot be identified. These include:
- Infectious diseases
- Head trauma
- Abnormal tissue growth
- Circulatory problems
- Neurologic disorders
- Immunologic diseases
- Inner ear problems such as Meniere’s disease
- Ototoxic medications, such as certain antibiotics or drugs used to treat cancer
Idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss is defined as sudden deafness when a cause cannot be identified. The most common cause of sudden sensorineural hearing loss is believed to be from a viral infection of the inner ear.
What Are the Symptoms of Sudden Deafness?
Symptoms that often precede or accompany sudden deafness include:
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Vertigo or dizziness
- Fullness in the ear
- A sudden loud “pop” in the ear, similar to what you’d experience with a change in pressure
- Muffled hearing upon waking up or when trying to use the telephone
How is Sudden Deafness Diagnosed?
If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. Doctors believe that prompt medical attention offers the best chances for hearing recovery. Do not delay – your hearing depends upon it.
Your doctor will first complete a physical exam, looking in your ear to determine if there is an obstruction. You will also have a hearing test.
A hearing test measures how loud different sounds must be before you can hear them. The results of this test are important, as a common sign of sudden deafness is a loss of 30 decibels and three connected frequencies within a 72-hour period. This change in hearing would make someone speaking at a normal volume sound like a whisper.
If you are diagnosed with sudden deafness, your doctor may order additional tests for further evaluation. These may include a balance test, blood work and imaging.
How Is Sudden Deafness Treated?
Treatment varies and will depend upon the cause (if known). Steroids are the most common treatment method for sudden deafness. Steroids may be given orally, or your doctor may recommend a steroid injection in your ear to try to improve your hearing. For those with severe hearing loss that does not respond to treatment, your doctor may recommend the use of a hearing aid or implantable hearing device.
Call River ENT at (512) 677-6368 for more information or to schedule an appointment.