Sudden Hearing Loss: Causes and Treatment Options

Sudden Hearing Loss: Causes and Treatment Options

Sudden Hearing Loss

By: Adrian Roberts, MD

Sudden hearing loss is a frightening experience and typically results in a trip to a doctor’s office or emergency room. It is more common than you might think and occurs at a rate of 5-20 cases for every 100,000 people, or about 4,000 cases per year in the United States. The causes for hearing loss vary and include possibilities like viral infection, blood flow compromise, autoimmune disorders, and medication side effects.

Typically, sufferers experience a sudden drop in hearing in one or both ears over a period of less than 72 hours. Patients frequently also complain of “tinnitus” or ringing in the affected ear(s) and may feel like the ear is stuffed up, as well. Sometimes this can lead to a delay in seeking medical help as people assume they just have fluid or wax in the ear.

While fluid or wax in the ear can cause hearing loss, this particular type of loss, known as conductive hearing loss, is generally treatable. In contrast, damage to the inner ear or hearing nerve causes sensorineural hearing loss, which is often permanent and cannot be corrected even with hearing aids. As a result, patients who experience any sudden hearing deficit should be referred to an audiologist for testing.

The natural course of sudden hearing loss depends on several factors including the patient’s age, presence of vertigo at onset, degree of hearing loss, audiometric configuration and time between onset of the hearing loss and treatment. The only one of these variables we can change is the time between the loss and treatment, again emphasizing the importance of early diagnosis.

Typically, high dose steroids taken by mouth are

Adrian Roberts, MD, is Board Certified in Otolaryngology.

Adrian Roberts, MD, is Board Certified in Otolaryngology.

the first course of treatment for sudden hearing loss, and up to two-thirds of treated patients experience recovery. However, oral steroids are only effective when taken within two weeks of the initial hearing loss. When these medications do not make a difference, a second option is to deliver the steroid by injecting it directly through the eardrum into the middle ear. Studies have generally shown this to be an effective treatment, though the results have been somewhat mixed.

Another treatment option might be the use of hyperbaric oxygen, but this treatment is expensive, works for only one of every five people treated, and leads to a maximum improvement of only 25 percent. Hyperbaric oxygen should be administered within three months of the hearing loss to offer any chance of improvement.

While sudden hearing loss is a serious medical condition and strikes without warning, taking care of your general health through exercise and diet can actually help protect your ears and your hearing. Should you ever suffer from a sudden change in hearing, it is critical that you quickly seek an appropriate medical diagnosis and effective treatment.

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