Suddenly losing your hearing is a stressful and overwhelming experience. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNHL) is a type of hearing loss that occurs in one or both ears. It is often temporary and hearing is restored once the underlying condition that is causing the impairment is treated. If you experience hearing loss, it is important to have your hearing evaluated as soon as possible.
Understanding Sudden Hearing Loss
Sudden hearing loss is when hearing rapidly declines. Experts define this type of hearing loss as the loss of 30 decibels of hearing over a 3-day period or less. It most often happens in one ear in less than 24 hours with no prior symptoms and indications of hearing health issues. The National Institute on Deafness & Other Communication Disorders estimates that 1 in 5,000 adults experience sudden hearing loss every year. But the number of people that are actually impacted is likely much higher due to how many cases of sudden hearing loss that are untreated.
People often mistake sudden hearing loss as not impaired hearing but symptoms of accumulated earwax, allergies, or another short-term factor. This can cause people to not address the changes in hearing that they are experiencing. But it is important to be able to recognize symptoms of sudden hearing loss and seek treatment as soon as possible. Healthcare providers do consider sudden hearing loss as a medical emergency that needs to be assessed right away to protect hearing health.
Sudden hearing loss develops quickly and because it tends to be unreported, the underlying causes remain largely unknown. It is estimated that only 10-15% of sudden hearing loss is reported and treated. Of these known cases, common factors that caused the sudden hearing loss include:
- Viral or bacterial infections
- Inner ear disorders
- Autoimmune conditions
- Head and/or neck injuries
- Neurological conditions
- Specific medications
Hearing healthcare professionals and researchers suggest that viral infections are likely the cause of sudden hearing loss that does not have an easily identifiable cause. This is because most people who rapidly lose their hearing also report experiencing a cold or respiratory issues before developing sudden hearing loss. This supports what is known about how viral infections impact hearing health. Viruses cause inflammation of the eustachian tube which manages ear pressure as well as fluid in the inner ear. This inflammation causes fluid to accumulate behind the eardrum which becomes infected, preventing soundwaves from being processed and causing hearing loss.
Diagnosing Sudden Hearing Loss
If you experience sudden loss of hearing, the first step to take is scheduling an appointment for a hearing test. Conducted by a hearing healthcare specialist, hearing tests involve a painless process that measures your hearing capacities in both ears. The most common type of hearing test is known as pure tone audiometry. This noninvasive test process involves wearing headphones in a booth or quiet space while sounds at different frequencies are played. A hearing healthcare specialist will guide you through these sounds and you will indicate what you are able to hear. Your hearing healthcare provider may also conduct additional testing to help identify underlying causes contributing to the onset of sudden hearing loss. This can include blood tests, balance tests, MRIs etc.
Hearing is often restored for people experiencing sudden hearing loss who seek treatment. The most common way sudden hearing loss is treated is with steroids that are prescribed and taken orally for up to two weeks. Steroids, specifically corticosteroids (cortison), alleviates the inflammation that is often causing the hearing loss occurring in the middle ear. In addition to pill form, another way steroids are administered is through injecting the liquid form behind the eardrum. This treatment option is known as intratympanic corticosteroid therapy. Another way sudden hearing loss is treated is through antibiotics. This may be prescribed to treat any viral or bacterial infections causing the hearing loss.
Sudden hearing loss is highly treatable and should be addressed immediately. Delaying treatment can cause permanent damage to the auditory system, producing chronic hearing loss. Contact us today to learn more about this type of hearing loss and how you can protect your hearing health. We look forward to helping you prioritize your hearing health.