A rapid decline in hearing that occurs all at once or over the course of several hours is called a Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSNHL) and should be treated as soon as possible.
SSNHL most often occurs in one ear and might be accompanied by fullness in the ear, tinnitus (ringing, buzzing etc.) and vertigo (a room spinning sensation). Some individuals report hearing a loud “pop” prior to losing hearing; others also report extreme nausea. The hearing loss may be noticed first thing in the morning upon waking or when holding a telephone up to the affected ear. Other indications of a SSNHL include difficulty hearing sounds directed at the affected ear and “fuzzy” or distorted sound quality.
Treatment for SSNHL should be sought immediately. There is a high chance of recovery of hearing with prompt treatment. Unfortunately, symptoms of SSNHL are often thought to be related to wax build up or an ear infection and may be brushed off as temporary symptoms or may be treated with antibiotics.
If a SSNHL is suspected it is very important to have an evaluation performed as soon as possible by an ENT or otolaryngologist. Case history information, physical examination and a hearing evaluation by an audiologist will help confirm a SSNHL. In some cases an MRI and blood work will also be ordered. Treatment most commonly includes a course of corticosteroids given either in pill form and/or as an injection into the middle ear space.
The chance of partial to total recovery of hearing is higher if treatment is received within ten days of onset, with the highest chance of recovery being if treatment is received within 72 hours of onset. In cases where treatment is delayed more than two to four weeks after onset, the chance of recovery of hearing is low.
Some causes of SSNHL include, viral infections, autoimmune disease, ototoxic (toxic to the inner ear) medications, trauma and compromise of blood circulation to the inner ear.
If you experience a sudden change in hearing in one ear, which may or may not be accompanied by fullness, tinnitus and vertigo, please seek medical care immediately.