Sudden hearing loss is a medical emergency. A person experiencing sudden hearing loss must be seen as quickly as possible by an ENT physician. The best possibility of improvement occurs after an immediate diagnosis and initiation of treatment. If no visible obstruction or infection is visible, a hearing test will determine the type and amount of hearing loss. The ENT physician may wish to prescribe medication and/ or imaging of the inner ears.
Hearing loss is a widespread condition that affects approximately 35 million Americans. It is commonly associated with aging – 1 out of 3 people aged 65 experiences some degree of natural hearing loss – but can occur in persons of all ages, and is often exacerbated by environmental factors such as noise exposure.
Defining Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is, simply put, a decreased sensitivity to sounds. Speech may sound muffled or difficult to understand, and you may find yourself asking others to speak more clearly or repeat what they are saying. You’ll find the TV or radio volume is too low, and may find yourself withdrawing from conversations and avoiding social situations.
Hearing loss can occur as the result of natural aging, hereditary factors, and exposure to occupational and recreational noises. It is sometimes a side effect of certain medications or illnesses.
Types of Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is characterized according to which part of the auditory system is affected. There are three main types.
Conductive hearing loss occurs when sound reaches the inner ear at a reduced volume. Causes include ear infections, fluid in the middle ear from colds and allergies, impacted earwax, foreign object in the ear, perforated eardrum, benign tumor, or an abnormality or defect in the middle or outer ear. Medication or surgery can often successfully be used to treat the underlying condition and restore hearing.
Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when the nerves to the inner ear or brain are damaged. Speech will sound faint or muffled, regardless of the volume or clarity of the person speaking. Causes include exposure to loud noise, head trauma, viruses or diseases, genetics, aging, inner ear abnormalities, tumors, and Meniere’s disease. This type of hearing loss – the most common – is rarely treatable with medication or surgery, but patients usually benefit from hearing aids.
Mixed hearing loss is a combination of both types, and occurs when there is damage to the inner, middle, and outer ear.
Treatment for Hearing Loss
Regardless of the type of hearing loss you are experiencing, treatment options are available. Medications can be used for conditions such as ear infections, while a doctor can remove impacted earwax. Some conditions, especially when trauma or congenital factors are involved, can be corrected surgically. There are a wide variety of hearing aids available with many different features for a diverse range of lifestyles, all designed to amplify sounds and make it easier to hear. Severe hearing loss often responds to cochlear implants that direct sound to the auditory nerve.