Sudden hearing loss can be dramatic and worrisome. In some cases, it represents a medical emergency. In many instances, however, people do not seek treatment for their sudden hearing loss, resulting in permanent damage to the affected ear.
In other cases, even when prompt care is given, it may not be possible to determine the cause of sudden hearing loss, which can hinder treatment. In fact, less than 20 percent of cases have an identifiable cause. Nonetheless, in 10 to 15 percent of cases, there is an identifiable cause.
What Causes Sudden Hearing Loss?
There are many sudden hearing loss causes. That is part of the problem in identifying any single cause in most cases: It could be any number of things, and sometimes, there is more than one factor at play.
Some sudden hearing loss causes include head trauma, tumor of the ear, and certain autoimmune diseases. Some medications can cause sudden hearing loss, as can Lyme disease and syphilis.
As an Immunological Response
Sudden hearing loss can be a symptom of an illness. It can also be a symptom of an ear infection (often caused by bacteria or a virus, such as otitis media). Blood may be drawn and tested to rule out certain diseases.
Another cause is autoimmune disease. The hearing system is sometimes attacked by the overactive immune system, resulting in sudden hearing loss.
As a Symptom of Another Disorder
Other sudden hearing loss causes are related to disorders in other bodily systems. For example, a metabolic imbalance can sometimes affect a person’s hearing, resulting in a sudden loss of hearing. Thyroid issues are often the underlying cause in these cases.
Issues in the circulatory system can also cause sudden hearing loss, as can certain neurological disorders. Testing will be needed in order to determine the role played by these potential causes in any given case of SHL.
Cochlear and Inner Ear Problems
Sudden hearing loss causes include issues within the hearing system itself. Inner ear problems, such as Meniere’s disease, can cause SHL. The same is true of cochlear issues. In rare cases, cancer or benigntumor growths on theauditory nerve or brain can also cause SHL.
Since these causes are most directly related to the loss of hearing, these are the causes that are most likely to be tested for first (and discovered, if present). If there is nothing wrong with the ear itself, testing will be expanded to explore other potential causes.
What Are the Symptoms?
Although there are many sudden hearing loss causes, most cases will not have a readily identifiable cause. Nonetheless, cases of sudden hearing loss present with symptoms, although those symptoms do vary by patient and cause.
Symptoms include a rapid drop in hearing, of more than 30 decibels in 72 hours or less. Some patients may hear a loud “pop” just before their hearing disappears. It’s more rare but some will experience pain especially if it is related to infection in the middle ear. Many patients will have dizziness and problems with their balance, and almost all patients have some degree of tinnitus, or ringing of the ears.
Onset is rapid, although it varies from patient to patient. Sudden hearing loss can affect one ear or both ears; it commonly affects just one.
Getting Prompt Treatment
No matter the underlying cause, SHL should be treated promptly. While not often a true emergency, immediate treatment can help preserve your hearing. Many people with SHL recover some of their hearing spontaneously; however, a lack of treatment may mean that your hearing is permanently lost or damaged.
Given the diversity of sudden hearing loss causes, you should seek treatment and testing if you experience it. Most of the associated medical problems are very treatable but could cause significant illness or in rare cases: death if left untreated.
If you experience sudden hearing loss (SHL), contact on of our doctoral-level audiologists immediately. We have a protocol to provide testing and urgent medical referral if necessary.