Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSHL), or sudden deafness, occurs when a relatively quick loss of hearing takes place in the inner ear, auditory nerve or brain over the course of hours or a few days. Hearing loss with SSHL may be permanent or temporary.
A sudden hearing loss should be viewed as a medical emergency, and a person who experiences such symptoms should visit a doctor immediately.
People of all age groups are affected by sudden hearing loss, but fewer cases are reported in children and the elderly. The peak incidence occurs in those 30 to 60 years old. The symptoms of sudden sensorineural hearing loss are variable. They may include:
- Rapid onset of hearing loss in one or both ears
- Awakening with a hearing loss, seen one third of the time
- Mild to severe degree of loss
- Low- or high-frequency loss
- Distortions in speech perception
- A loud sound or pop at the onset
- A feeling of fullness in the ear or ears
- Vertigo, or spinning dizziness, seen in about 50 percent of cases
- Ringing in the ears or tinnitus, which accompanies SSHL 70 percent of the time.
Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL) is often idiopathic, meaning the source of the loss is not evident. There are, however, many potential causes of sudden deafness. The following are thought to be associated with sudden hearing loss:
- Bacterial infection
- Viral infection
- Lyme disease
- Vascular disease
- Autoimmune disease
- Endocrine disorders (hypothyroidism, diabetes, etc.)
- Tumors of the auditory nerve
- Neurologic disorders
- Encephalitis or meningitis
- Meniere’s disease
Many patients recover completely without medical intervention, often within a few days. Others improve slowly over several weeks. Fifteen percent of cases experience a hearing loss that declines further over time. Regardless, anyone experiencing sudden hearing loss should seek medical help immediately. Dr. Rejowski believes early intervention greatly increases the chance and speed of recovery.
Dr. Rejowski will begin any evaluation of a sudden hearing loss with an audiogram, or hearing test. A careful history and examination looking for potential infectious causes such as otitis media (inflammation of the middle ear) and for other possible etiologies, such as those listed above, will be taken. Screening blood chemistries, complete blood counts, CT scans or MRI studies of the temporal bone may be indicated.
The most common therapy for SSHL, especially in cases with an unknown cause, is treatment with steroids. Steroids work to reduce inflammation and possible swelling in the auditory nerve or cochlea. They can be administered orally or via a tube placed into the eardrum.
Patients with Meniere’s disease, an inner ear disorder characterized by fluctuating hearing loss and vertigo, are frequently managed utilizing diuretics and a low salt diet.