Sudden hearing loss—what you need to know

Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL) or sudden hearing loss is dramatic, occurring either instantly or over a 72 hour period. In nine cases out of ten, SSHL involves only one ear and about 85% of people who seek medical help will recover at least or all some of their hearing.

SSHL most commonly occurs in the 40 to 50 age group and although the sudden onset of symptoms may be baffling, it is critical that you seek medical attention urgently.

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How do I know I have sudden hearing loss?

The term SSHL refers to the sudden and significant loss of 30 decibels or more of hearing.  A loss of thirty decibels is the equivalent of your normal television volume level suddenly becoming a whisper, and difficulties understanding normal conversation or using the telephone may be the first indication that something is wrong.

Other symptoms may also appear, including:

  • Tinnitus—a range of whistling or buzzing type noises may be present in the affected ear
  • Dizziness—occurs in around 30% of people with SSHL
  • Feelings of fullness or heaviness in the ear in more than 75% of SSHL cases
  • A loud ‘pop’ in your ear may be the first sign of SSHL

Many people with SSHL do nothing about it because they think the problem may be as simple as too much earwax or a cold. This is a mistake and can result in permanent hearing loss and ongoing issues with tinnitus and vertigo.

What causes sudden hearing loss?

A wide range of causes can be linked to the onset of sudden sensorial hearing loss (SSHL) including:

  • Viral infections; mumps, Rubella, Epstein-Barr
  • Head injuries such as concussion, and decompression problems in divers
  • Autoimmune diseases such as Cogan’s syndrome
  • Tumours impacting on the auditory nerve
  • Inner ear problems such as Ménière’s disease
  • Ototoxic drugs—some drugs are known potential triggers for hearing loss
  • Strokes and blood circulation problems

In fact, little is known about what actually triggers SSHL and searching for the cause can be a little like looking for a needle in a haystack. The wide range of possible causes and the difficulty of obtaining an accurate diagnosis add to the complex issue of treatment.

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What should I do now?

When treating SSHL, timing is critically important for successful medical intervention. See you doctor or hearing specialist immediately. Certain conditions need to be eliminated from the search such as the possibility of a tumour or other life threatening diseases.

Infectious diseases will also need to be eliminated along with autoimmune and circulatory issues. An MRI might be necessary to detect the 15% of SSHL cases that are triggered by a tumour.

You should also request an urgent referral to an ear specialist, who will be able to build up a clearer picture of what’s happening in your ears using hearing tests.

Hearing tests allow the medical experts to hone in on the location of the damaged area as well as the degree and nature of your hearing loss. You should expect your ear specialist to perform tests such as pure tone audiometry diagnostics and otoacoustic emission tests.

But getting urgent attention is the key factor in the successful treatment of sudden sensorial hearing loss. Studies show that a delay of two weeks or more makes a positive outcome highly unlikely.

You may never know precisely what has caused your SSHL but the following treatments have been successful in restoring hearing.

Anti-inflammatory medication

Anti-inflammatory medications such as cortico-steroids have been one of the most popular treatments for SSHL. The theory is that reducing the inflammation will assist a prompt return to normal hearing but research has not provided conclusive proof that steroids are an effective way to treat SSHL in all cases.

Recent studies have suggested that injecting the steroid into the ear is more effective than taking steroids orally. This has the added benefit of a significant reduction in the amount of steroid treatments required and a reduction of possible side effects.

Rheological medication

Medication to improve blood circulation has also been effective in many cases of SSHL. Improved oxygen supply to the damaged area probably assists with the healing process in these cases.

Hyperbaric oxygen

Studies indicate that hyperbaric oxygen therapy can contribute to the success of conventional SSHL treatments but according to the authors of one study, ‘the best results are achieved if the treatment is started as early as possible’.

The type of treatment that is best suited for your SSHL will depend on what has triggered it. Talk to your doctor and ask about possible side effects for any treatment you undertake. In other words, make informed decisions about your hearing health.

Hearing Aids

Unfortunately, some cases of SSHL lead to permanent hearing loss or will leave you with the troubling symptom of tinnitus. In these situations it is important to restore as much as your hearing as possible with the use of hearing aids. You can learn more about the dangers of leaving hearing loss untreated here.

Today’s hearing aids and cochlear implants are already using tomorrow’s technology to make your life a whole lot easier.

Modern hearing aids will restore much of your hearing and are able to generate soothing white noise that will disguise the irritating tinnitus noise.

The House of Hearing can help you live your life to the full with a modern no-fuss hearing aid.

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