What would you do if you woke up one morning and couldn’t hear out of your right ear? What if you noticed over a couple of days that your left ear started sounding like a bad speaker? This can happen for many reasons, including wax buildup, ear infection, and congestion from a cold. There is another, more urgent reason this can happen, called sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNHL) or sudden deafness. This affects as many as 66,000 Americans a year. SSNHL is considered a medical emergency because treatment is only effective if administered within the first 14 days, and the best outcomes are for patients treated within two to three days. SSNHL is often permanent if not medically managed quickly.
All too often, I see patients who have experienced a sudden change in hearing and have missed the treatment window. Frequently, I hear the same story: they went to the doctor, who looked in their ear, told them there was fluid, prescribed nasal spray and an antihistamine or antibiotic, and to check back in a couple of weeks. Sadly, I see “fluid in the ears” misdiagnosed frequently in my practice. It’s critical to know the type of hearing loss if it is going to be managed appropriately. The most recent guidelines from the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS) recommends an audiogram within 14 days of noticing a sudden change in hearing. Without this information, the type of hearing loss cannot be reliably determined. If you are experiencing a sudden change in hearing, you should insist on having a hearing evaluation by an audiologist to accurately determine the type of hearing loss.
Once SSNHL is diagnosed appropriately, the most common treatment is high-dose oral steroids, but sometimes steroids are directly administered to the ear with injections. On occasion, anti-viral medications are prescribed. There is no way to prevent this condition, but paying attention to your body and insisting on a hearing evaluation if something has changed with your hearing is the best way to manage it.
The Hearing Journal has a great checklist at: bit.ly/SSNHLChecklist
By Samantha King, CBHC Audiologist