July 31, 2014

Ask the Audiologist: Can Someone Really Lose Their Hearing Overnight??

By Rachel F. King, Au.D.
Audiology Consultants, P.C.

Most of the time, people lose hearing gradually over a long period of time. That’s why many people with hearing loss are the last to realize it. They adapt to the slow changes over time. But, in rare instances, a hearing loss can occur rapidly or
suddenly. In addition to not being able to hear, sometimes there can be tinnitus and/or dizziness at the same time. Whether or not there are the other symptoms, a sudden loss of hearing can be an indication of a serious problem and medical attention should be sought as soon as possible.

There are different types of hearing loss in general. A hearing loss that occurs because of a problem in the middle ear, where the ear drum and ear bones are housed, is called a conductive hearing loss. A hearing loss that occurs because of damage to the inner ear, or nerve area of the ear, is called a sensorineural hearing loss. Sometimes one can have a combination of both types, and this is called a mixed hearing loss.

A sudden onset of hearing loss can be due to problems in the middle ear or the inner ear. Examples of sudden conductive hearing loss are ruptures of the ear drum, trauma to the skull that damages the eardrum or the bones, or some fluid buildup behind the ear drum. Most of the time, the cause of this type of sudden loss is easily identified, because there is a known incident that occurs at the time of the hearing loss, such as an accident. Medical attention is needed to diagnose the problem and try to correct and treat as much of the damage as possible.

The cause of a sudden sensorineural hearing loss can be more difficult to identify. There are several things that can cause this that we know of, such as a stroke or trauma to the skull, where the sensory area is housed. Another example could be what we call noise trauma, where the ear is exposed to extremely high levels of noise (such as an explosion) for even just a brief amount of time, and the sensory area of the ear is damaged. There are times, however, when there just is not an easily identifiable cause. This is referred to as idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss. Many physicians hypothesize that this type of sudden loss can be due to a viral infection that damages the inner ear or the nerves of the ear. Sometimes a sudden sensorineural hearing loss can be treated, sometimes it can’t.

No matter what the cause of a sudden hearing loss is, the important thing is to get medical attention quickly. A medical physician needs to diagnose the type of hearing loss and try to identify a cause. Sometimes a sudden loss of hearing is a sign of a more serious medical condition. Once it is determined that there is not a condition that requires immediate treatment, a hearing test will likely be ordered to determine what type of sudden loss you have (conductive or sensorineural). Depending on the findings and results of that test, your physician will be better able to decide on a treatment plan for you. If your loss can be medically corrected, that is the best solution! Waiting to seek treatment can greatly diminish your options for such treatment.

Not all sudden hearing losses can be treated or can recover fully. This can create quite an emotional turmoil for you and your loved ones. It is harder to cope with a sudden loss, because you experience such a drastic change in such a short period of time. You don’t have the time to adapt to the changes in your hearing that those with gradual onsets of hearing loss do. But, there is hope. If your hearing loss is declared permanent, then you will want to see an audiologist. An audiologist can help you with learning how to adapt to, and cope with the hearing loss. Many times, there is technology available, such as hearing aids or other devices that can help you with communication and hearing. An audiologist will help you navigate your options and decide what the best solution is for you.

If you, or a loved one, has already experienced a sudden hearing loss and has not sought help for the hearing loss, encourage them to speak with an audiologist. If you, or someone you know, ever wakes up with a hearing loss, remember to seek medical attention as quickly as possible to give yourself the best chances for treatment and recovery.

Filed Under: Health & Wellness