According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), sudden deafness, or sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), strikes one person per 5,000 every year, typically adults in their 40s and 50s. SSHL usually comes on suddenly and rapidly, and nine out of 10 people with SSHL lose hearing in one ear.
Unfortunately, most people who experience sudden hearing loss delay treatment or don’t seek treatment at all, because they think the condition is due to allergies, sinus infections, or earwax impaction. If you suspect you have SSHL, you should seek immediate medical care, because any delayed treatment could result in permanent hearing loss.
Your hearing specialist will conduct a hearing test (pure tone audiometry) to diagnose SSHL. This test will help answer if your hearing loss is due to one of the following conditions: 1) Sound is not reaching the inner ear due to an obstruction (fluid or earwax); or 2) The ear is not processing the sound that reaches it due to a sensorineural deficit. With this test, your hearing specialist will also be able to determine the range of hearing that’s been lost. If you have a hearing loss of at least 30 decibels in three connected frequencies, the hearing loss is diagnosed as SSHL.
Besides conducting a hearing test, your doctor may order other tests, such as a balance test, blood test, or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to determine the underlying cause for your SSHL.
About 80% of people diagnosed with SSHL do not have any identifiable cause. For the other 20%, causes have been attributed to secondary issues associated with primary illnesses or medical conditions, including:
- Ototoxic Drugs (drugs that affect the sensory cells in the inner ear)
- Autoimmune Diseases (such as Cogan’s Syndrome)
- Trauma (head injury)
- Infectious Diseases
- Blood Circulation Problems
- Tumors (tumors on the nerve that connects the ear to the brain)
- Neurologic Diseases and Disorders (such as Multiple Sclerosis)
- Disorders of the Inner Ear (such as Ménière’s Disease)
The onset of symptoms is different for everyone; however, many people report that they experience dizziness or have a sudden onset of ringing in the ears (tinnitus). Some people even report that they experience a sudden, loud pop in their ear right before losing hearing.
For others, they don’t experience any physical symptoms, but report that they noticed the hearing loss when they woke up in the morning or when they tried to use their phone with the deafened ear.
For patients that have an undetermined cause for their SSHL, the primary treatment is corticosteroids, as they reduce inflammation, decrease swelling, and help the body fight illness. Patients can either take oral corticosteroids (pill form) or they can have a steroid injection placed behind the eardrum directly into the middle ear where the steroids travel to the inner ear (intratympanic corticosteroid therapy). The injection is a better choice for patients who cannot take oral steroids, but there may be some discomfort associated with this method of delivery.
If your doctor discovers the underlying cause for your SSHL, he/she may recommend additional treatments. For example, if you have an infection, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics for you; if you have a toxic reaction to a medication that is affecting your ear, your doctor may prescribe a different medication for you; or if you have an autoimmune condition and your immune system is attacking your inner ear, your doctor may prescribe a medication that will prevent your immune system from doing this.
Patients who seek diagnosis and treatment from doctors who specialize in diseases of the ears, nose, throat, and neck (an otolaryngologist or ENT doctor) have an 85% better chance of restoring most of their hearing. Of those who seek no diagnosis and treatment, nearly half may have their hearing restored spontaneously within 1 or 2 weeks from onset of hearing loss.