A sudden hearing loss is, exactly as the name infers, a noticeable decline in hearing that occurs over a few hours, or a few days. Some sudden hearing losses are conductive in nature, while other hearing losses are described as sensorineural. The difference in classification is determined by where these hearing losses originate.
Sudden Conductive Hearing Loss
A sudden hearing loss can be conductive in nature if it originates in the outer ear or ear canal. In these cases the inner ear and nerve still function perfectly normally, but something reduces the conduction of sound from the outer ear before it is received by the inner ear.
Examples of a sudden conductive hearing loss
- Wax blocking your ear canal. While cerumen (wax) is created through a very slow process, if it accumulates to the point that it blocks the canal completely you may experience a sudden change in your hearing.
- A foreign body in your ear canal – you won’t believe the things we have found in people’s ear canals! The most commonly found items are cotton bud tips, hearing aid domes and wax filters, and beads.
- Outer ear canal infection. This, once again, is caused by occlusion of the ear canal by a bacterial or fungal growth.
- Otitis media with effusion is the presence of fluid in the middle ear (the space between the eardrum and the inner ear). If this middle ear cavity fills with fluid then sound cannot easily pass through to the inner ear.
If you have sudden hearing loss, it might be due to one of the above reasons. Our ear nurse can inspect your ear canal and remove any obstruction, if there is one. If, however, you ear canal is inspected and there is no obvious cause of the hearing loss then this warrants further investigation via a diagnostic hearing assessment.
Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss
With a sudden sensorineural hearing loss, or sudden deafness, the outer ear and middle ear continue to function normally. In these cases the loss of hearing is caused by changes to the inner ear, to the nerve of hearing, or to the way in which the brain processes information from the ear. In most cases (approximately 85%), a specific reason for the loss of hearing is never identified.
Examples of causes of a sudden sensorineural hearing loss
- Trauma to the ear or head
- Blood circulation problems
- Meniere’s disease, or other disorders of the inner ear
- Acoustic neuroma (growth on the hearing nerve)
- Neurological diseases, for example multiple sclerosis
If you have a sudden hearing loss that is sensorineural in nature this will always warrant immediate and thorough investigation. In the first instance a diagnostic hearing assessment is indicated. The diagnostic hearing assessment will determine if the hearing loss is conductive or sensorineural in nature, and can document the extent of the loss.
Medical treatment with Prednisone (steroids) may improve or return your hearing to your normal levels. On identification of a sensorineural change in hearing our audiologist will write a referral to your family doctor/GP with a recommendation to begin a course of steroids. It is, of course, up to you and your GP to determine whether, based on your medical history, this is indicated. We will also refer you to an Otolaryngologist (Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon). Unless you already have your own ENT specialist, we would refer you to one of the four Otolaryngologists who work in the same building as us. You can find out more about them here.
Because the sensorineural hearing loss is sometime caused by a non-cancerous growth on the hearing nerve, or neurological disease, an MRI scan of the brain and ear may be arranged by the Otolaryngologist.
After completion of your course of steroids a further hearing test will be carried out by our audiologist. This second hearing assessment is carried out to determine if the treatment resulted in measurable improvements to your hearing. On the same day (generally), you will also see an ENT Specialist to review both results.
If you fall into the 15% of people for whom a diagnosis for the sudden sensorineural hearing loss is available, then the Otolaryngologist will be able to provide you with information on how to manage your hearing, and what might happen for you in the future. For everyone else, the future is less predictable. But, if you have previously had a sudden hearing loss, any small change to your hearing in the future warrants a further diagnostic hearing assessment, and follow up with your ENT Surgeon.
If the sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not caused by a lesion, but to changes to the inner ear, you are most likely to get some improvement in your hearing if you seek immediate advice from an audiologist, or Otolaryngologist. After the completion of the investigations and treatments, if you continue to have hearing loss, you will probably benefit from wearing hearing instruments. We are able to offer a trial of hearing aids so that you can see for yourself if there are benefits to be gained.
If you have concerns about a sudden change of your hearing you should seek immediate advice. If you would like to speak to one of our team about your hearing please contact us here.