Hearing loss often happens gradually over time. However, sometimes it can come on suddenly, either instantly or over the course of a few days. Sudden hearing loss can be a very upsetting and confusing issue to experience. The good news is that temporary hearing loss can often be remedied, especially if diagnosed and treated early. Here, we break down the main causes for temporary or sudden hearing loss, as well as treatment options and (most importantly), what you can do to minimize your risk of experiencing it.
What is temporary or sudden hearing loss?
Sudden hearing loss (sometimes called sudden deafness) occurs when you experience an accelerated loss of hearing. It can happen all at once or over the course of several days. Sudden hearing loss is often unilateral, or affects only one ear. In fact, 90 percent of those who experience this kind of hearing loss only experience symptoms in one of their ears.
A range of symptoms accompany sudden hearing loss, such as:
- Muffled sound in ear
- Difficulty following along in conversations
- Trouble hearing amid background noise
- Difficulty hearing higher-pitched sounds
- Dizziness orbalance issues
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ear)
Causes for Sudden Hearing Loss
Sudden or temporary hearing loss, as with other types of hearing loss, typically occurs due to one of two reasons: sound is not able to reach the inner ear from the middle ear (e.g., there’s something blocking the path) or sound does reach the inner ear, but it’s unable to continue on to the brain due to damage to the inner ear or neural pathways.
There are dozens of sudden hearing loss causes; sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact root of the issue. In fact, doctors end up finding a specific cause for the hearing loss in only 10 to 15 percent of diagnosed cases.
Here are some common causes for sudden hearing loss:
Obstruction (Ear Wax): Ear wax is healthy and offers a lot of protective benefits, but sometimes excess ear wax can build up in the ear canal and block sound from passing through to the inner ear. When sound waves can’t pass through to the inner ear, the result is sudden, temporary hearing loss.
Ototoxic Medications: Some medications have been discovered to be ototoxic, which means they can be harmful to ears and hearing. Taking these types of medications can damage the sensory cells of the ear and cause hearing issues such as tinnitus and hearing loss. There are more than 200 medications known to be ototoxic—many of them are used to treat cancer, heart disease and infections. While some of these medications can cause permanent hearing damage, others result in just a temporary hearing loss. Medications known to cause temporary hearing loss include high doses of aspirin and NSAIDs (ex. ibuprofen), quinine (used to treat malaria), and loop diuretics (often prescribed for heart and kidney conditions).
Exposure to Loud Noise: Intense, loud sounds can damage the sensitive nerve cells in our inner ear, which are needed to convert sound into signals to send to the brain. Exposure to a loud sound, either immediate or continuous, can cause noise-induced hearing loss. This type of hearing loss is often permanent, but it can sometimes be temporary. In those cases, sudden hearing loss recovery time is one or two days.
Head Trauma or Injury: An abrupt, violent blow to the head, such as those from a car accident or explosion, can cause brain concussions and injuries. These injuries can damage the auditory system and pathway, resulting in sudden hearing loss. The middle and inner ear are more commonly affected, particularly the sensitive nerve cells in the cochlea (inner ear). Nerve cell damage can lead to hearing loss, as well as tinnitus.
Sometimes a head injury only affects the outer or middle ear, resulting in a type of hearing loss called conductive hearing loss. The hearing loss typically goes away within a few months in these cases. However, if the trauma is severe enough to damage the inner ear, the sudden hearing loss may actually become a long-term, permanent hearing loss.
Ear Infections: Ear infections are more common in children, but they do affect adults as well. Bacteria and viruses can invade the middle ear, causing a buildup of fluid. This fluid becomes a breeding ground for infection. The swelling and excess fluid can block sound waves from passing through to the inner ear, resulting in temporary hearing loss. Many people report that the ear sounds muffled in these cases. Normal hearing is usually restored after the infection clears up. Note: It’s important to get treated for an ear infection, as untreated infections could result in more ear damage and more permanent loss of hearing.
Diagnosis and Treatment
While you may be tempted to wait it out, it’s important to see your doctor right away if you’re experiencing sudden or temporary hearing loss. Early treatment can often mean better chance at a faster and fuller recovery. Your doctor will review your medical history and perform a physical exam. He or she may refer you to an ENT—a doctor who specializes in ears, nose and throat. Be sure to disclose any medications you’re currently taking, as well as any diagnosed medical conditions you already have.
The doctor may perform certain tests to assess your hearing at different sound volumes, as well as check for any damage to your middle ear and eardrum. He or she may also order blood tests or an MRI to get detailed images of the ear and brain to check for any cysts, tumors or other abnormalities.
Steroids are one of the most common treatment options for this type of hearing loss. They can help reduce inflammation and swelling, as well as help the body fight off infection. Antibiotics may be prescribed if an infection is diagnosed or suspected. The doctor may have you stop or switch medications if one you’re taking is harmful to ears.
3 Tips to Prevent Temporary Hearing Loss
Here are some simple tips to help reduce your risk of temporary or sudden hearing loss:
- Protect your ears from loud noises. Turn down the volume, walk away from loud sounds and wear protective gear when around harmful levels of noise.
- Boost your immune system. To help your body avoid and fight off infections, load up your grocery cart with fruits, vegetables and other nutrient-rich food. Vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin C, B6 and zinc are known to strengthen the immune system.
- Ask your doctor about your meds. Check with your doctor about any new or current medications you’re taking, and whether they are known to be ototoxic. Before treatment, the doctor can get a baseline measurement of your hearing, which can used to monitor any hearing changes and explore drug therapy changes down the road if need be.