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Sudden Hearing Loss

What is sudden hearing loss?

Sudden hearing loss is a catch-all term for a number of different hearing loss conditions. Most often, it refers to a disorder called idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss. The exact cause of hearing loss in these cases is never determined, but it is considered to be a result of inflammatory changes to the hearing organ (cochlea).

doctor consulting patient

Sudden Hearing Loss Symptoms

Typically, people with a sudden hearing loss will notice a severe and often dramatic decrease in their hearing ability over a period of a few days to a week. In many cases, the loss will be abrupt. The individual may awake with a degree of hearing loss that wasn’t present the prior evening. A sudden hearing loss typically will only affect one ear, but it can in rare cases affect both ears at once.

Some patients will also experience:

  • ear pressure
  • headache (rare)
  • mild dizziness
  • tinnitus (ringing/buzzing)
  • vertigo
  • vision changes (rare)

If you have been diagnosed with a sudden hearing loss, or are concerned you may be experiencing the symptoms of one, please contact our ENT department. We will promptly schedule you for a consultation with our neurotologist/otologist. A timely diagnosis is important, as the damages sustained during a sudden hearing loss can become permanent without early treatment.

Sudden Hearing Loss Treatment

Treatment for a sudden hearing loss often begins with a medication called a corticosteroid (“steroid”), which can reduce inner ear inflammation and in some cases reverse the hearing loss. 

While roughly 50-60% of sudden hearing loss cases can be expected to improve with timely diagnosis and treatment, many patients are not expected to recover from their hearing loss. As mentioned, time to diagnosis and initiation of treatment is key. Patients who have not been treated within four to six weeks of the hearing loss onset can expect significantly worse chances for recovery.

Some patients with a sudden hearing loss may be deemed a candidate for an injection of steroid medication directly into the ear. Termed an intra-tympanic injection, this procedure can in select cases improve the chances for hearing recovery. Intra-tympanic injection is typically performed by a specialized neurotologist/otologist in the office setting without anesthesia.

Our specialized neurotology/otology physician may participate in any/all phases of care for your sudden hearing loss as outlined here and will review and discuss the unique variables associated with your case.

Additional Information

Who gets sudden hearing loss?

Possible causes of sudden sensorineural hearing loss include:

  • adverse medication effects
  • autoimmune attacks (autoimmune ear disease)
  • blood clotting (micro-embolism)
  • viral infection

However, patients presenting with a sudden hearing loss may also be exhibiting symptoms of a benign hearing nerve tumor (acoustic neuroma), various rheumatologic disorders, or a sudden very loud noise exposure.

How is sudden hearing loss diagnosed?

Most cases of sudden hearing loss are diagnosed either by your primary care doctor, general ENT doctor, or audiologist using hearing loss tests. However, patients can and often do self-diagnose.

Depending on who made the diagnosis, your practitioner may also order an MRI scan to rule out a tumor as the cause of your hearing loss and/or refer to you to a specialized neurotologist/otologist, who will continue to follow your case long term.

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Roughly 50-60% of sudden hearing loss cases improve with treatment.
Medically Reviewed by Shawn Michael Stevens, MD on April 23, 2021