A sudden loss of hearing is considered an emergency and should not be ignored. Even a slight change in hearing level that occurs suddenly should be evaluated as soon as possible. In many cases, the condition is caused by something simple, such as a plug of ear wax or fluid behind the tympanic membrane caused by allergies, but it may also be the result of a serious medical condition that requires immediate treatment.
Symptoms of Sudden Hearing Loss
Sudden hearing loss typically occurs in only one ear, but it can affect both ears. Depending on the cause, the hearing loss may occur instantaneously with no apparent explanation. Many patients complain that they were able to hear normally when they went to bed but were unable to hear when they woke up the next morning. The hearing loss may be accompanied by a sensation that the ears are plugged up, which many attribute to a cold or allergies. While this may be the case, it is important to rule out more serious causes, including a virus that can damage the ear, a tumor, or even a stroke in the inner ear.
A simple self-test can help determine if the hearing loss is due to allergies, wax, or fluid. If you can hear yourself hum in the affected ear, then you are most likely looking at allergies, wax, or fluid, which can all be easily treated with medications or specialized cleaning. Although these conditions are not life-threatening, they can cause discomfort and affect equilibrium if not treated as soon as possible. If too much fluid builds up behind the eardrum, it can even cause the tympanic membrane to rupture.
Diagnosing Hearing Loss
Diagnosing sudden hearing loss begins with a comprehensive hearing evaluation. This involves a series of tests to assess each portion of the ear from the outer canal to the inner ear. These tests are designed to identify any structural abnormalities, obstructions, inflammatory conditions, or other issues that could interfere with hearing. An MRI may be used to check for acoustic neuromas and other tumors affecting the auditory nerve. Tumors affecting the auditory nerve are responsible for approximately 3 percent of cases of sudden hearing loss. These tumors do not metastasize, but they can cause the hearing to progressively deteriorate.
In rare instances, blood tests may be used to detect diseases that can have a detrimental effect on hearing. Examples of these types of conditions include Lyme disease, autoimmune disorders, and infections.
Treatment of Sudden Hearing Loss
Sudden hearing loss is most often treated with prednisone, which is an oral steroid. Prednisone works by suppressing the body’s inflammatory and immune response. Steroids may also be injected directly into the ear. This is known as an intratympanic injection. A cerumen impaction caused by a buildup of ear wax is usually treated by flushing out the wax. Fluid buildup caused by allergies is usually treated with antihistamines and decongestants. Hearing loss caused by a bacterial ear infection may be treated with antibiotics.