What does it mean if I suddenly lose my hearing?

Hearing Loss

Hearing typically declines with age as we grow older. However, when hearing loss occurs suddenly, it is referred to as “sudden hearing loss”, specifically known as “sudden sensorineural hearing loss.” This is a medical condition in which an individual experiences an unexplained and rapid loss of hearing in one ear or within the hearing nerve, typically occurring all at once or within a 72-hour timeframe. The severity of this hearing loss can vary, and it often affects only one ear. Sudden hearing loss is considered a medical emergency.

While not common, sudden sensorineural hearing loss affects approximately 5 to 20 cases per 100,000 individuals. It can occur in both males and females, with a higher incidence typically observed in individuals between the ages of 30 and 60 years old.

Most people with sudden hearing loss wake up with a hearing loss and it often goes undiagnosed. However, sudden hearing loss is considered a medical emergency, and hearing can potentially be treated if acted fast within the 2 week time period of occurrence.

Causes of Sudden Hearing Loss

There can be many causes of sudden hearing loss, however for most cases, the reason is unknown. Here are the potential factors that may contribute to sudden hearing loss:

  • Idiopathic sudden hearing loss: For majority of cases, the occurrence is unknown.
  • Viral infections: Some viral infections, like the herpes simplex virus, may cause sudden sensorineural hearing loss if the inflammation causes damage which affects the inner ear, hearing organ or the hearing nerve.
  • Vascular issues: Disruption in blood flow, such as blood clots or vascular conditions, towards the ear may cause sudden hearing loss.
  • Autoimmune disorders: Autoimmune disease which involves the immune system mistakenly attacking the inner ear can cause sudden hearing loss, such as autoimmune inner ear disease (AIED).
  • • Trauma: Any physical trauma to the head that damages the structure of the ear, and its hearing pathways can lead to sudden hearing loss.
  • Ototoxic medication: Some chemotherapy drugs or antibiotics have side effects which can affect and damage the hair cells of the cochlea (hearing organ) and potentially cause hearing loss.
  • Tumours: tumours in the ears or the auditory nerve like acoustic neuromas may grow and press on the auditory structure which can lead to sudden hearing loss.
  • Neurological conditions: Certain neurological conditions, like multiple sclerosis, may affect the auditory system and result in sudden hearing loss.
  • Loud noise exposure: Exposure to extremely loud noises, even for a short duration, can damage the hair cells in the inner ear and cause sudden hearing loss.

Symptoms of Sudden Hearing Loss

Rapid hearing loss in any ear is the main symptom of sudden hearing loss, however there may be accompanying symptoms including:

  • Awareness of tinnitus (the presence of sounds in the ear, like ringing or buzzing, without any present stimuli) after the onset of sudden hearing loss
  • Distortion or muffling of sounds in the ear with sudden hearing loss
  • Aural fullness which is the feeling where the ears feel blocked or full
  • Dizziness and imbalance
  • Nausea or vomiting

Treatments Available

Sudden sensorineural hearing loss is a medical emergency so going to see your doctor or the emergency room is important as there are greater chances of improvement in recovery the earlier you are treated.
Oral steroids for 7-14 days are the standard treatment for sudden sensorineural hearing loss when the cause is unknown, and the most effective time period for the greatest recovery is within 48 hrs to 2 weeks of the initial hearing loss.

Sometimes even with treatment, hearing may not be recovered, which can be confirmed with a hearing test comparing hearing levels before and after treatment. However, it is extremely important to maintain the remaining hearing to prevent any further deterioration. Hearing aids or cochlear implants may be an option if the hearing does not recover.

Sudden sensorineural hearing loss is a medical emergency. It is essential to seek medical attention as soon as possible by going to the emergency room or the GP for the best prognosis of recovery, as the quicker the treatment the better the result of restoring some degree of hearing if possible. Hearing tests can be done before/during treatment and after treatment to see if there are any degrees of improvement in hearing.

If you have noticed any changes to your hearing, it might be time for a hearing test. Early detection and identification are essential for managing and treating hearing concerns.
At Knox Audiology, we take pride in our team of university qualified and experienced audiologists, who are committed to providing trusted, friendly, and professional hearing services, catering to all your unique hearing needs. Our comprehensive and diagnostic hearing tests are designed to understand and address your specific concerns, ensuring the best possible outcomes.

For any support, please reach out to us call 03 9800 5697 or contact us online.