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Sudden deafness, also called sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL) is a medical emergency. If you get diagnosed and treated right away, you have about an 85 percent chance of recovering your hearing. If you don’t, your chance of recovering drops to 50 percent. SSHL usually requires a referral to an ear, nose, and throat doctor for hearing testing and treatment.
SSHL is caused by sudden damage to your inner ear or the nerve that goes from your inner ear to your brain, called the auditory nerve. Gradual sensorineural hearing loss is common in old age, but this type happens in both ears. SSHL is sudden, and happens anywhere from right away to within three days.
Another type of nerve damage deafness is called noise-induced hearing loss. Sound is measured in decibels. Normal speech is about 65 decibels. Music with headphones at maximum volume is about 100 decibels. An explosion or fireworks can be up to 160 decibels. Any exposure to sounds over 85 decibels can cause sudden, noise-induced hearing loss. This type happens in both ears, is usually accompanied by ringing in your ears, called tinnitus, and it may clear up on its own in a few days.
Symptoms of SSHL
SSHL can have different symptoms for different people. It occurs in just one ear about 90 percent of the time. Symptoms may include:
- Muffled hearing in one ear after waking up
- A pop in your ear and immediate muffled hearing in one ear
- Fading of hearing in one ear that gets worse over three days
- Dizziness, or a feeling of spinning (vertigo)
- Ringing in your ear (tinnitus)
Causes of SSHL
SSHL occurs in about 1 in 5,000 people. The average age is 40 to 50. The cause is believed to be inflammation or decreased blood supply to the hearing nerve fibers in the inner ear or the auditory nerve. The exact cause is only found in about 10 percent of SSHL. You may be at higher risk for SSHL if you have high cholesterol, high blood sugar, or high blood pressure. Some diagnosed causes include:
- An infection of the inner ear
- Head trauma
- An attack by the immune system on the hearing nerves, called autoimmune disease
- A benign tumor that forms on the auditory nerve, called an acoustic neuroma
- An inner ear disease called Meniere’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Some cancer treatment drugs that are toxic to the hearing nerves
Diagnosis and Treatment of SSHL
You should see your primary care provider right away for sudden hearing loss. Your health care provider may check your ear canal to see if wax is blocking your ear and ask you if you have allergy symptoms or nasal congestion that may be causing pressure or fluid behind your eardrum. This type of hearing loss is called conductive hearing loss because it blocks sound from getting to your hearing nerves.
If the cause does not seem to be wax, pressure, or fluid, you will need to see an ear, nose, and throat doctor. This doctor will do a hearing test called a pure tone audiogram that can tell if you have conductive hearing loss or SSHL. SSHL usually causes a hearing loss of at least 30 decibels. A 30-decibel loss would decrease the sound of normal talking to a whisper.
Your doctor may do imaging tests of your inner ear (MRI) or blood tests to look for treatable causes of SSHL. An imaging test may diagnose an acoustic neuroma or multiple sclerosis. An inner ear infection or autoimmune disease may be diagnosed with a blood test.
SSHL can be temporary or permanent. The most effective and immediate treatment is an anti-inflammatory medication called corticosteroid. An ear doctor may inject this steroid directly into your ear through your eardrum. With treatment, about 85 percent of people will get at least some hearing back. For people who do not get their hearing back, options are a hearing aid or a cochlear implant. A cochlear implant is a hearing nerve stimulating device implanted into your ear.
Sudden deafness is a hearing emergency, so you need to get help right away. If you have SSHL, the best chance of recovering your hearing is to get diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.