Anybody who has experienced a sudden loss of hearing knows how scary the situation can be. Most of the time, hearing loss develops gradually; it may be years before you even notice a decline in your ability to hear! But when the condition happens in a short period of time with no prior warning, you are bound to be caught off guard. It turns out many physicians are, too.
What is Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss?
Sudden sensorineural hearing loss, or SSHL, is a 30-decibel or greater loss of hearing that occurs within a 72-hour period and affects three contiguous frequencies. Most patients who develop SSHL (90 percent) are affected in only one ear. It is most common in adults who are in their 40s and 50s, though it can affect individuals of all ages. In addition to a sudden loss in hearing ability, many patients experience dizziness and a ringing in the ears.
SSHL is very rare. The National Institutes of Health estimates that roughly six out of every 5,000 people are affected, though the actual number could be significantly higher given the fact that SSHL often goes unreported or is frequently misdiagnosed.
What Causes SSHL?
A wide variety of conditions can lead to sudden sensorineural hearing loss. One of the most common is antibiotics; certain types are known to cause damage to the hair cells of the inner ear. Other possibilities include infection, trauma to the head, autoimmune diseases, circulatory problems, neurological disorders, abnormal tissue growth and tumors.
SSHL is often misdiagnosed because its symptoms mimic those associated with more innocuous conditions, such as impacted earwax or congestion. This leads both doctors and patients to erroneously conclude that the problem is the result of a cold or allergies and should clear up on its own. Improvement does happen in some cases, but for others, the condition worsens the longer it goes untreated.
Patients are sometimes prescribed nasal sprays and decongestants for their symptoms, but while these are often effective in treating congestion, they won’t do anything to restore hearing.
Because SSHL fools even experienced medical professionals, it can initially be difficult to determine whether you are suffering from congestion or a more serious hearing impairment. Your audiologist recommends the following technique: try humming to yourself. If your voice sounds louder in the ear you are having trouble hearing out of, it’s likely that earwax, infection or congestion are responsible for your symptoms. But if your voice is louder in the ear that you can hear out of, it’s probably a result of SSHL.
A hearing test is the only sure way to diagnose sudden sensorineural hearing loss. It’s imperative that you seek treatment as soon as possible; if your hearing doesn’t return within a few hours – especially if it’s accompanied by a feeling of pressure in the ear – get yourself to an ear, nose and throat doctor ASAP.
Corticosteroids are often prescribed to help reduce inflammation in patients suffering from SSHL. Steroids lose their effectiveness after about four weeks, so don’t waste time seeking treatment.
For more information on hearing loss, sudden or gradual, contact an your audiologist for an appointment.