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, known as sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), 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.
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. Fifteen percent of those who experience sudden deafness will have hearing loss that worsens over time.
What Causes Sudden Deafness?
There are over 100 possible causes for SSHL. These include infectious diseases, head trauma, abnormal tissue growth, circulatory problems, neurologic disorders, toxic causes, immunologic diseases, inner ear problems such as Ménière’s disease and ototoxic medications.
Certain groups of antibiotics, in particular, have been shown to destroy the hair cells of the cochlea, causing sudden deafness that is often permanent in nature. These must be used with extreme caution and should be avoided unless they are the only viable course of treatment for a life-threatening illness. Be sure to question your physician or clinic thoroughly when antibiotics are prescribed.
Risk factors for SSHL include a prior diagnosis of meningitis, a recent head injury, ear infection, exposure to loud noise, a sudden change in pressure and starting a new medication.
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 wakening or when trying to use the telephone.
How Is Sudden Deafness Treated?
If you experience any of these symptoms, see a physician or audiologist immediately. Doctors believe that prompt medical attention offers the best chances for a full recovery. Do not delay – your hearing depends upon it.
Treatment varies and will depend upon the cause (if known). Steroids, which reduce inflammation and swelling and aid the body in fighting illness, are the most common treatment method for sudden deafness.