In 2018, one out of every 5,000 people1 will suddenly lose their hearing. It will occur without warning, either all at once or over the course of several days. The majority of people will lose hearing in only one ear but nevertheless it should be considered a medical emergency and your ENT or audiologist should be consulted at once.
Causes of sudden deafness
Sudden deafness usually strikes people in their 40s and 50s. It may occur first thing in the morning or after hearing a loud pop, after which there is no hearing in that ear. Sudden deafness should be diagnosed immediately after experiencing the hearing loss but in many cases it is not. Some who experience sudden hearing loss believe it is due to earwax buildup, allergies or a sinus infection.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), a very small percentage, 10 to 15 percent, of sudden hearing loss can be attributed to a specific cause:
- Infectious diseases
- Trauma, such as a head injury
- Autoimmune diseases such as Cogan’s syndrome
- Ototoxic drugs (drugs that harm the sensory cells in the inner ear)
- Blood circulation problems
- A tumor 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
An audiologist can conduct the appropriate hearing tests to determine exactly how much hearing has been lost. Sudden hearing loss is measured by the loss of at least 30 decibels of hearing ability. In common terms, the loss of 30 decibels means that regular speech conducted in a conversation would sound like a whisper to the person who has lost hearing in one ear. Once the level of hearing loss is diagnosed proper treatments can be determined.
Treatments for sudden deafness
The most common treatment for sudden deafness is the administration of steroids, called corticosteroids. They can be taken orally or injected into the middle ear. If a doctor determines that the sudden hearing loss is caused by one of the factors listed above then treatments may begin to address that cause. For example, if an infection is causing the hearing loss then antibiotics may be prescribed. If a tumor is found surgery may be planned.
People who suffer sudden hearing loss respond differently to treatments and some regain hearing without any treatment. According to the NIDCD:
- Approximately 50 percent of people who suffer sudden hearing loss will recover some or all their hearing without treatment; usually one to two weeks after suddenly losing their hearing
- Of those who receive treatment for sudden hearing loss, about 85 percent recover some of their hearing
Losing one’s hearing suddenly is a serious condition. It is always best to seek medical attention and advice for any sudden change in health and especially when it concerns the ability to hear. Getting tested by a qualified professional can rule out any underlying causes and lead to fast treatment that may improve and/or save hearing.