You’re sitting with the family in your son’s den. To your right, the soft crackle of newly-stoked flames glowing in the fireplace. Around the room, your son and his wife sit talking about their week. Their daughter, your granddaughter, age 8, sits in the left corner of the room playing computer games on her smartphone with the volume barely audible.
Your grandson, 4, is content to play with building blocks on the floor. The blocks click and clack as he builds a red, blue and green tower that you’re certain will fall any moment.
As you enjoy the conversation, the crackle of the fire suddenly goes silent at your right. You can still hear your granddaughter’s smartphone perfectly on your left.
Your daughter-in-law’s voice sounds strangely faint. As you turn your head, you hear her better. But now your son’s voice sounds strange.
What is happening? You’ve always had near perfect hearing.
If you’d start to feel a little concerned if this happened to you, that concern would be well-placed.
Hearing loss can be an emergency, especially if….
It happens suddenly
Hearing loss typically happens very gradually. Many things can contribute to the slow progression of hearing loss like frequent and ongoing exposure to a loud sound. Think of someone using a lawnmower without ear protection every week for years.
This would cause gradual hearing loss.
Any time hearing loss is sudden, you are experiencing a single event that is causing the hearing loss. Think of a hunter hunting with friends when one accidentally shoots a rifle near the person’s head.
They are likely to experience sudden deafness. This deafness may become permanent without treatment.
But noise isn’t the only thing that can cause sudden deafness.
It happens on one side
Sudden deafness often happens on one side. In these cases, one ear was more exposed to whatever caused the deafness.
Sudden, one-sided hearing loss should always be treated as an emergency.
And you feel dizzy or hear strange noises
This symptom alone doesn’t usually mean you are experiencing sudden deafness, but it often accompanies the deafness. That’s because hearing and balance regulation both take place in the inner ear.
Often the room doesn’t go completely silent. You still hear a ringing, thumping, buzzing, static or other sound that tinnitus makes.
What causes sudden hearing loss
Sudden hearing loss has several potential causes. It may be that blood flow has been cut off to the inner ear. Unlike other parts of your body, the inner ear only has one artery supplying it with blood.
If this artery gets blocked or squeezed somehow, the inner ear loses blood supply. Its delicate components will quickly die and do not regenerate
The cause could be a:
- Bad ear infection
- Tumor in the ear or the brain
- Autoimmune disease
- Very loud noise exposure (e.g., standing near speakers at a loud concert, earbuds with sound over halfway up, or an explosion)
- Very high blood pressure
- A very stressful event
How getting emergency help could save your hearing
If the sudden hearing loss was caused by a very loud sound, then what may be mild damage is made worse by the inflammatory response that happens in the ear after an event.
A hearing specialist or emergency doctor can give a patient an oral steroid or steroid injection to stop the inflammation before it does more damage.
They may also give you hyperbaric oxygen. This quickly increases the oxygen in your blood to help the inner ear recover.
But this must be administered quickly, sooner the better, to have a full recovery.
If you try to skip the emergency room and go to a doctor’s office, be sure to tell the person on the phone that this is sudden hearing loss. If they can’t get you in immediately, you should go to an urgent care center (if available) or the ER.
If it has another cause, the specialist will try to determine the cause. But the first line of treatment will generally be those stated above.
Sixty to 65% of people who experience a sudden deafness episode will either fully or partially recover within about one month. Those who don’t fully recover may require hearing aids.
People with high blood pressure or diabetes have a lower recovery rate.
People who are older have a lower recovery rate but this often relates back to their overall health, not having more years.
A hearing loss emergency
Hearing loss that is sudden is a medical emergency. Those who receive ASAP treatment can fully recover.
If you’re experiencing sudden hearing loss, don’t delay treatment. Getting treatment quickly can avoid permanent damage.