What Causes Sudden Hearing Loss?

Hearing testing
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Sudden hearing loss is considered as such if it occurs in 1 to 3 days. The experience can be quite worrisome. It can occur in one or both ears and is often accompanied by tinnitus (ear ringing). You might wake up with hearing loss you didn't have before going to bed, or you might experience a decline in your ability to hear over a few days. Sudden hearing loss can be low or high frequency and may include a decreased ability to perceive speech. You may also experience vestibular symptoms such as vertigo, imbalance, or motion sickness.

Potential risk factors for sudden hearing loss may include autoimmune diseases such as lupus or Cogan syndrome, or iron deficiency anemia.

Causes of Sudden Hearing Loss

The causes of sudden hearing loss include:

  • trauma, such as head injuries or damage to the eardrum caused by a foreign object, an extremely loud noise or ear surgery
  • barotrauma
  • ototoxic medications, such as gentamicin, furosemide (Lasix), or large doses of aspirin
  • infections including viruses
  • neurologic disorders
  • Meniere's disease
  • a mass of tissue, such as a tumor that is growing very quickly (rare)
  • toxic substances such as snake venom (rare)
  • changes in blood flow and a decrease in oxygen reaching the inner ear (caused by thrombosis, embolus, vasospasm, changes in blood pressure, etc...)

In a significant number of cases, the cause of sudden hearing loss cannot be identified. This is referred to as idiopathic sudden hearing loss.

What to Do If You Experience Sudden Hearing Loss

Sudden hearing loss should be treated seriously. The sooner you get in to see a doctor, the more likely you are to regain your hearing.

It is best to see a doctor who specializes in disorders of the ear, nose, and throat (also called an ENT specialist or otolaryngologist).

How Is Sudden Hearing Loss Diagnosed

Your doctor will begin by asking you about your medical history and current symptoms then will likely conduct a physical exam. Based on this information your doctor could use blood work, hearing tests, medical imaging (such as an MRI), or other tests to try to determine the cause of your hearing loss.

Treatment for Sudden Hearing Loss

The treatment for sudden hearing loss varies according to cause. In the case of barotrauma or another type of injury, the ear may eventually heal on its own. Underlying infections need to be treated or allowed to run their course. If hearing loss is related to an ototoxic medication, your doctor will likely tell you to discontinue its use. There is no one treatment that is standard for rapid hearing loss. Some studies suggest that there is a high rate of hearing returning spontaneously without treatment. Other studies have shown that taking corticosteroid medications is beneficial. Your doctor will need to tailor a treatment that is specific to you based on your unique circumstances.

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