Sudden Hearing Loss
Sudden hearing loss is a rapid loss of hearing which occurs suddently or over a period of up to three days. It is considered to be a medical emergency. A person who experiences sudden hearing loss in one or both ears should see a doctor immediately.
Most cases of sudden hearing loss occur in one ear only. Many people notice it when they wake in the morning. Others first notice it when they try to use the affected ear, such as making a phone call. Some notice a loud, alarming "pop" just before their hearing disappears. People with sudden hearing loss often experience dizziness or a ringing in their ears, or both. Due to its sudden and unexplained onset, sudden hearing loss can be quite frightening for the person concerned.
Some people recover completely without medical intervention, often within the first three days. This is called a spontaneous recovery. Others get better slowly over a one or two week period. Although a good to excellent recovery is likely, 15 percent(1) of those with sudden hearing loss experience a hearing loss that gets worse over time and may become permanent.
Causes of Sudden Hearing Loss
There are many potential causes of sudden hearing loss. Only a small number of people affected will know what caused the condition. Normally, diagnosis is based on the person’s medical history. Possible causes of sudden hearing loss include:
- diseases of the immune system
- disorders such as Ménière’s disease
- infectious diseases
- abnormal tissue growth
- trauma, such as a head injury
- circulatory problems
- neurologic causes such as multiple sclerosis
- ototoxic drugs (drugs that harm the ear)
- toxic causes, such as snake bites
Treatment of Sudden Hearing Loss
People who experience sudden hearing loss should see their doctor immediately. Accessing medical help quickly will increase the chance of recovery.
Immediate referral to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist with expertise in the treatment of sudden hearing loss offers the best chance of recovery.
Research into treatment for sudden hearing loss is still evolving, and opinions are divided on treatment options. In March 2012, the American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery released new clinical practice guidelines on the management of sudden hearing loss. This is the first and only US clinical practice guideline on this condition. This comprehensive overview summarises the evidence relating to different treatment options. Opinions on the new guidelines are mixed, and continue to be debated - particularly in the US. An article discussing a range of views on the sudden hearing loss guidelines was published in June 2012 in ENT Today.
Should you ever find yourself in the position of experiencing sudden hearing loss, avail yourself of the the most authoratitive, evidence-based information available to you, and then discuss the range of options available to you with your health care professional. You may also choose to access more than one opinion.
References and Further Reading
National Institute of Deafness and Communication Disorders, Sudden Deafness, March 2003
American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery, Clinical Practice Guidelines: Sudden Hearing Loss, Sage Publications, March 2012