Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNHL) is a medical emergency defined as an individual experiencing at least 30 dB of sensorineural hearing loss occurring over 3 days or less. It typically occurs when there is damage to the inner ear (cochlea) or to the nerve pathways to the brain.
SSNHL are associated with head trauma (such as a car accident), acoustic trauma (exposure to loud noises), viral infections, tumors, decreased circulation to the inner ear, membrane breaks, or exposure to ototoxic medications. Also, it is not uncommon for it to occur for an unknown reason (idiopathic).
Treatment is managed by an otolaryngologist in conjunction with the audiologist in order to achieve maximum recovery of hearing. Pharmacological treatment can include steroids or antiviral medications when diagnosed close to the onset of symptoms.
For most people who experience hearing loss, the condition comes on gradually over a period of years. In rare cases, an abrupt loss of hearing occurs with little or no warning. This condition is known as sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL).
What is Sudden Deafness?
Sudden deafness is an unexplained and rapid hearing loss that occurs all at once or over several days which may be accompanied by dizziness or tinnitus. The severity of the hearing loss varies.
Who Develops Sudden Deafness?
Experts estimate that about one to six per every 5,000 people experience sudden deafness every year, although some suspect this number is much higher as the condition often goes undiagnosed.
People of all ages can develop sudden deafness. Most often, it affects adults in their late 40s and early 50s.
What Causes Sudden Deafness?
There are many possible causes for SSHL. These include:
- Infectious diseases
- Head trauma
- Abnormal tissue growth
- Circulatory problems
- Neurologic disorders
- Exposure to loud noise
- Immunologic diseases
- Inner ear problems such as Meniere’s disease
- Ototoxic medications
What Are the Symptoms of Sudden Deafness?
Symptoms that often precede or accompany sudden deafness include:
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Vertigo or dizziness
- Fullness in the ear
- A sudden loud “pop” in the ear, similar to what you’d experience with a change in pressure
- Muffled hearing upon wakening or when trying to use the telephone
How is Sudden Deafness Diagnosed?
If you experience any of these symptoms, see an audiologist immediately. Doctors believe that prompt medical attention offers the best chances for a full recovery.
Your doctor will first complete a physical exam, looking in your ear to determine if there is an obstruction. If there is no obvious cause to your sudden deafness, such as a buildup of fluid or earwax, your doctor will complete a pure tone hearing exam to test for sensorineural hearing loss.
A pure tone hearing test measures how loud different sounds must be before you can hear them. The results of this test are important, as a common sign of sudden deafness is a loss of 30 decibels and three connected frequencies within a 72 hour period. This change in hearing would make someone speaking at a normal volume sound like a whisper.
If you are diagnosed with sudden deafness, your doctor will order additional tests to determine the underlying cause. These may include a balance test, blood work and imaging.
How Is Sudden Deafness Treated?
Treatment varies and will depend upon the cause (if known). Steroids, which reduce inflammation and swelling and aid the body in fighting illness, are the most common treatment method for sudden deafness.
Additional treatments may include antibiotics to treat an infection or medication to suppress the immune system if the sudden deafness is caused by an autoimmune disorder.
For those with severe hearing loss that does not respond to treatment, an audiologist may recommend the use of a hearing aid or cochlear implant.