How to Identify and Treat Sudden Hearing Loss

Sudden hearing loss can be a shocking experience, but knowing what type of hearing loss you’re experiencing is key to determining how to treat it. A conductive hearing loss is the result of a blockage to the ear and results in muffled sounds, while sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL) is a condition of the inner ear that essentially lowers the “volume” of what you’re able to hear. Both types of sudden hearing loss can often involve a complete recovery when the condition is treated quickly.

Sudden hearing loss (conductive): Ear infections and earwax sometimes have the potential to cause a temporary partial or full hearing loss, although this is usually no cause for alarm. This type of hearing loss is known as conductive hearing loss. It’s caused by a blockage in the outer or middle ear that prevents sound from reaching the inner ear, and hearing usually returns to normal once that blockage is removed.

Sudden sensorineural hearing loss: Occasionally, a more serious condition can occur in the inner ear that causes a sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), or sudden deafness. Tests can usually properly diagnose the difference, but it’s important to act quickly to prevent possible permanent damage from this medical emergency. SSHL can occur all at once or over a period of up to three days. A loss in hearing sensitivity of at least 30 decibels in three connected frequencies usually indicates a diagnosis of SSHL.

Nine in 10 people who experience SSHL are affected in only one ear, and many people notice it when they wake up in the morning, or when they try to use the deafened ear and realize it’s not working. Others notice a loud popping sound just before their hearing disappears and sometimes experience dizziness, tinnitus, or both. A medical specialist should be seen within the first 48 hours of SSHL to help ensure a complete recovery.

Causes of Sudden Hearing Loss

    <li>Outer-ear infections occur when the ear canal becomes inflamed or infected due to bacteria. Blockage may occur, but hearing usually returns after the infection resolves.</li>
    <li>Middle-ear infections occur when swelling or pus forms in the middle ear, blocking sound from moving to the inner ear. Hearing usually returns after the infection goes away, but untreated middle-ear infections can cause damage that leads to permanent hearing loss. Most infections resolve on their own, but antibiotics can help.</li>
    <li>Inner-ear infections usually result in severe vertigo, nausea and vomiting from an inability to balance, and a loss of hearing in higher frequency ranges. A virus or bacteria is the usual cause, and recovery could take weeks or months, but most patients make a complete recovery.</li>
    <li>Approximately 4,000 new cases of SSHL occur each year. It can affect anyone but happens most often to those between the ages of 30 and 60. There are more than 100 possible causes, which makes it difficult to understand the source of the sudden hearing loss. Many medical professionals believe that a viral infection attacks the inner ear and causes SSHL. In viral cases, hearing may completely return, may partially return, or may not return at all.</li>