Sudden hearing loss

April 23, 2015 by Wenna D'Costa

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Have you ever woken up in the morning and noticed a big decrease in your hearing? Have you ever heard a loud “pop!” in one of your ears and later experienced whistling, ringing, or an increased difficulty in hearing?

If you answered yes to one of these questions, you might present a sudden hearing loss.

What is sudden hearing loss?

Sudden hearing loss is characterized by a quick and sudden decrease in hearing, and usually occurs in only one ear. Here are the criteria set by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) for diagnosis of sudden hearing loss:

  • A sensorineural hearing loss (damage to internal ear or auditory nerve)
  • Hearing loss must be at least 30 dB (e.g., the person can no longer hear people whispering)
  • Hearing loss must range across at least three consecutive audiometric frequencies (different tonalities)
  • Loss must occur suddenly (a progression varying from a few seconds to 72 hours)

What are the symptoms?

Patients frequently report the feeling of having their ear blocked (aural fullness). About 30% to 40% of patients also experience vertigo (the room seems to be spinning) or instability (feeling unbalanced). Sudden hearing loss is almost always associated with tinnitus (whistling or ringing in the ear).

What are the causes of sudden hearing loss?

Even though the cause of 70% of sudden hearing loss is unknown, the origin of the remaining 30% is believed to be infectious, immunologic, vascular, traumatic, or neoplasic (ex.: tumor), etc.

Between 5 and 30 people out of 100,000, children included, will develop sudden hearing loss in any given year.

What is the hearing recovery prognosis?

Recovery will depend on a series of factors: patient’s age, presence (or absence) of vertigo when hearing loss occurred, hearing loss severity and configuration, as well as time elapsed between hearing loss onset and the first intervention (consulting a specialist).

Recovery also differs from one person to another: some patients will completely recover while
others will see their condition only partially improve.

What should I do if I’m suspecting sudden hearing loss?

Despite the possibility of spontaneous improvement, you should see an ENT specialist or an audiologist within 72 hours to maximize your chances of recovery.

Note that audiologists working in the Lobe clinics offer emergency consultations for this type of cases.

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-CHAU, J. K., J.R. LIN, S. ATASHBAND, R.A. IRVINE et B.D. WESTERBERG (2010). « Systematic Review of the Evidence for the Etiology of Adult Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss », Laryngoscope, 120(5), 1011-1021. doi: 10.1002/lary.20873.
-LEONG, A. C., J.W. FAIRLEY et N.D. PADGHAM (2007). « Sudden hearing loss », Clinical Otolaryngology, 32(5), 391-394.