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Sudden Hearing Loss

Quick treatment is crucial for this often-mysterious condition

If you woke up one morning and found you couldn't see out of one eye, odds are you'd call the eye doctor immediately — or even go to the emergency room. Unfortunately, observes Paul Jones, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Rush University Medical Center, we don’t tend to treat our ears with the same sense of urgency.

"When sudden hearing loss occurs," Jones says, "people often think it's due to earwax and tend not to get it checked out right away."

But sudden sensorineural hearing loss — also called sudden hearing loss or sudden deafness — is far more serious than an ear plugged with wax, and immediate treatment is crucial.

"If a patient who has experienced sudden hearing loss comes in to our office within 48 hours, we can probably preserve their hearing," Jones explains. "If they come in after that, they are much more likely to have permanent hearing loss."

Recognizing the problem

If your hearing has suddenly diminished, then, how do you know whether your ear is plugged or if it's something more serious requiring immediate medical attention?

"People with earwax buildup feel like they have a cork in their ear," Jones says. "Sudden hearing loss is more than that — it's often accompanied by dizziness or a ringing in the ear. Some people say the whole side of their head feels funny."

Unlike the slow buildup of earwax, sudden hearing loss occurs very rapidly — over a period of a few hours or, at the most, a few days. It usually strikes adults between 30 and 60 years old (though it can happen to anyone), and most people with the condition experience loss in only one ear.

Many causes, many treatments

There are dozens of possible causes, so when a patient comes in for treatment, Jones and his colleagues conduct a detailed examination in an effort to discover what’s behind the sudden loss of hearing.

Sometimes the problem proves to be high platelet count or a blockage in the cochlear artery, which carries blood from the heart to the ear. Other potential causes include overuse of opiate drugs and autoimmune inner ear disease, in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the ear.

When physicians identify one of these diseases, they are able to treat the hearing loss by targeting the underlying condition.

In the vast majority of cases, though, sudden hearing loss is idiopathic, meaning doctors can’t determine its cause. In such instances, they often prescribe oral steroids, which have been shown to help patients recover from unexplained sudden hearing loss.

For some patients who have medical conditions such as osteoporosis or diabetes that can make taking steroids inadvisable, physicians at Rush inject the medication directly into the ear's tympanic membrane to limit potential effects on the rest of the body.

Unraveling the mystery

In the hopes of eventually targeting treatments even more precisely, researchers are trying to unearth the reason behind most idiopathic sudden hearing loss. They suspect it may result from a virus that attacks the inner ear, Jones says, affecting the cochlea (a spiral-shaped cavity of the inner ear that contains nerve endings essential for hearing) and causing the ear not to work.

Whatever the cause, physicians at Rush treat the problem aggressively.

"We make sure that if anyone calls our office saying they've experienced hearing loss and they don't think it's due to wax buildup, we get them an appointment within 48 hours," Jones says.