Sometimes, life just throws a spanner in the works. Even with the very best in audiology care and the crème de la crème of hearing aids, it’s still possible to suffer an abrupt drop in your ability to hear, also known as Sudden Onset Hearing Loss (SOHL).
The signs will seem familiar to anyone who has already been diagnosed with impaired hearing: tinnitus flares back up, the television dialogue seems more remote than usual, family and friends become harder and harder to hold conversations with as you feel yourself drifting in and out. Higher pitches are often the first to experience a noticeable decline; ‘f’ becomes ‘s’, ‘th’ becomes ‘ph’, and the morning birdsong becomes more of a hum than a chorus.
Unexpected and rapid hearing loss can be a deeply worrying and depressing experience. It’s a serious condition that can affect anyone, at any age, irrespective of their previous hearing issues.
What are the types of sudden hearing loss?
SOHL can be subdivided into three broad classifications: Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSHL), Conductive Hearing Loss (CHL) and Mixed Hearing Loss (MHL). So, what do each of these entail?
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
‘Sensorineural’ (sensory + neural) refers to damage caused to the inner ear and auditory nerves, particularly against the sensory nerve and its neural circuitry. There can be a multitude of causes for why this might happen (which will be discussed later).
Conductive Hearing Loss
Inside the ear is a pathway from the outer ear to the eardrum to the middle ear. CHL occurs when sound waves do not transfer correctly along this route.
Mixed Hearing Loss
A combination of the two above, mixed hearing loss means that there is damage to the inner, middle and outer ear, potentially the auditory nerve as well.
Each of these sets of conditions comes with its own attendant causes and symptoms. Sometimes, something as simple as earwax build-up can have a huge knock-on effect if left untreated, resulting in one of the above outcomes. Let’s delve into some of the root causes of these effects.
Why is my hearing getting worse?
Earwax is, of course, a naturally occurring phenomenon. However, complications can arise when the wax is no longer disposed of normally. This can result in what audiologists call ‘impaction’; the earwax becomes stuck in the ear canal and compressed into a harder, stickier mass that can potentially damage your ear. You can read more about earwax removal here.
Each of the aforementioned areas of the ear is, unfortunately, susceptible to infection by bacteria, fungi or viruses. For a more detailed explanation, why not check out this blog by one of our resident audiologists, Rosie Dooley.
Sudden violent injury can be another major cause of SOHL; always make sure that if you’ve had a fall or taken a knock that you disclose this information to your GP or audiologist as it can make your diagnosis that much quicker.
Debilitating conditions like Multiple Sclerosis and Auditory Neuropathy can have a serious effect on hearing loss. The latter, while rare, means that the inner ear can detect sound, yet cannot successfully transmit this information to the brain. This is due to damage of the inner hair cells (sensory cells that convey data to the nervous system) and can affect people of all ages, even newborns.
A complex disorder of the inner ear marked by its episodic periods of vertigo, tinnitus and hearing loss, the cause of Ménière’s disease is not fully understood but can be hereditary in about 10% of cases.
Certain household drugs like antibiotics, pain relievers like aspirin and some diuretics may cause short-term hearing loss as a side effect. More exotic fare such as Quinine (used for malaria), chloroquine (for lupus) and hydroxychloroquine, which was approved in the US in 2020 as an emergency treatment for the coronavirus, are also noted to have unpredictable after-effects.
Blood Circulation Issues
Restricted blood flow to the inner ear can also cause problems in the long term; as such, you should always be mindful of any underlying conditions which may affect blood pressure.
Growths around the head or neck can have particularly adverse effects on hearing. One example of this is the acoustic neuroma, a benign (non-cancerous) tumour that develops on the main nerve leading from your inner ear to your brain.
What should I do?
Thankfully, the vast majority of the above causes are treatable – or at least manageable – if diagnosed correctly. In many cases, a reattuned hearing aid can be a sufficient solution to the issue. That said, certain conditions, such as a tumour, require immediate intervention and removal to prevent further damage.
If you or someone you know has had a sudden bout of hearing loss, make sure that you contact either your GP or one of our expert audiologists as soon as possible to ensure that the temporary doesn’t become the permanent.