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Sudden onset hearing loss


Karon Lynn, Au.D.

Last month a patient came to my office in a state of great anxiety. She is a teacher and said that she was writing on the chalkboard in her classroom and suddenly both of her ears went very quiet. She could hear people but they were extremely soft and sounded a little like Donald Duck when they talked. After my evaluation we sat down to discuss her sudden hearing loss.

What is sudden onset hearing loss?

In technical terms, sudden hearing loss is defined as a “greater than 30 dB sensorineural hearing reduction, over at least three contiguous frequencies (or pitches), occurring in 72 hours or less.” It may occur in both ears, but usually only occurs in one ear. The average age of persons with this condition is 46 years old, and 50 percent of those experiencing sudden hearing loss complain of dizziness or vertigo occurring at the same time as the change in hearing. Many of the people with sudden hearing loss complain of ringing or roaring in their ears.

What causes sudden hearing loss?

Sudden hearing loss may be caused from damage to the inner ear from viruses, medications, interruption or decrease blood to the ear, autoimmune disease, toxic exposure, trauma to the head or a rupture in the membrane in the inner ear. Because of the large list of potential causes, usually only 10 to 15 percent of people find out exactly what caused their hearing loss.

What can I expect to happen with my hearing?

Patients experiencing a 90dB or greater hearing loss usually do not regain their previous hearing ability. Three-quarters of those who have less than a 90dB drop in hearing and who receive proper medical management can improve their hearing ability. If hearing does not recover completely, a hearing aid may be the best option to help compensate for the continued deficit in hearing.

What should I do if my hearing suddenly changes?

Depending on your insurance requirements for a referral to an audiologist, it is recommend to promptly contact your primary care physician to request an immediate hearing test. Additionally, it is advantageous to make an appointment with an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) physician. Time is of great importance because the treatment must be started within 72 hours of the initial change in hearing. 

Why do I need a hearing test if I already know I can’t hear well?

Hearing tests document the amount and kind of hearing loss suffered as well as test for nerve responses. An audiologist will test for fluid in the middle ear to determine if the new hearing loss is due to a build up of fluid behind the eardrum and also will rule out wax in the ear canal as a cause. If you are experiencing dizziness in addition to the hearing change, the audiologist may want to complete diagnostic balance testing. During this visit the patient is counseled on the best method of managing permanent hearing change if necessary.

Karon Lynn, Au.D., is an audiologist at Flagstaff Medical Center’s Audiology Department.



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