Home page

Adult Hearing Loss - Sudden Hearing Loss as Adults

Hearing loss is a common medical condition. In the United States, 17 percent of adults report suffering from hearing loss and an estimated 15 percent of adults over age 20 suffer high-frequency hearing loss caused by exposure to loud noises. The percentage of adults suffering from hearing loss increases with age: of adults aged 65-74, 30 percent report hearing loss, and 47 percent of adults over 75 years of age report hearing loss. Sudden deafness or Sudden Hearing Loss affects 4,000 Americans each year. The symptoms, treatment, and prognosis of hearing loss vary according to the underlying cause.

Adult Hearing Loss: Types and Causes

The two types of hearing loss are conductive and sensorineural. Conductive hearing loss is the result of physical problems that block or obstruct the movement of a sound wave through the ear. Conductive hearing loss causes include blockage of the ear canal by wax or blood build-up, perforated tympanic membrane caused by direct trauma or a middle-ear infection (otitis media), dislocated ossicle from trauma, and infection of the ear canal (otitis externa). Sensorineural hearing loss is the result of damaged hair cells or nerves that sense sound waves. Causes of sensorineural hearing loss include the exposure to loud noises (acoustic trauma), baurotrauma (excessive pressure), head trauma resulting in a fracture of the temporal bone and auditory nerve disruption, exposure to ototoxic drugs and medications, excessive clotting due to vascular diseases, Ménière disease, tumor on the auditory nerve (acoustic neuroma), certain infections (measles, mumps, syphilis, meningitis), and aging.

Symptoms of Adult Hearing Loss

The onset of hearing loss in adults may be sudden or gradual and symptoms may vary with the cause. The degree of hearing loss may range from partial, a difficulty hearing conversations, to complete deafness. Partial loss of hearing with earache and a feeling of fullness in the ear may indicate an earwax blockage. Gradual loss of hearing in one ear may indicate an acoustic neuroma. Hearing loss and ringing in one ear accompanied by dizziness and nausea may indicate a tumor or Ménière disease. Hearing loss and a feeling of fluid in the ear accompanied by pain, fever, or cold symptoms may indicate a simple cold, flu, or allergy, or more serious conditions such as otitis media.

Prevention and Treatment of Adult Hearing Loss

Certain causes of hearing loss are preventable. Wearing ear protection when exposed to loud noises, such as loud music or machinery, can slow or prevent gradual-onset noise-induced hearing loss. To avoid traumatic hearing loss, foreign objects, including cotton swabs, cotton balls, and liquids not prescribed by a physician, should not be placed in the ear. Some forms of hearing loss are reversible with treatment. Treatment of otitis media with antibiotics, removal of blockages, the surgical removal of tumors, and treatment of injuries to the tympanic membrane with time, surgery, or skin grafts usually restore hearing lost due to these conditions. Hearing loss caused by infections such as measles, Ménière disease, aging, and acoustic neuroma usually does not return. Use of a hearing aid may help mitigate symptoms due to aging.

Sudden Hearing Loss in Adults: Types and Causes

Sudden Hearing Loss refers to hearing loss with rapid progression, which can range from hearing loss overnight to hearing lost over a few days. Sudden hearing loss may include low or high frequency loss, or both. Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSNHL) may be caused by viral or bacterial infections, such as mumps, Epstein-Barr, bacterial meningitis, and others. Possible vascular causes of SSNHL include hypercholesterolemia and diabetes. SSNHL may result from head injury, deep-water diving, cliff jumping, and flying in unpressurized aircraft. Other possible medical causes of SSNHL include chronic myeloid leukemia, acoustic neuroma, some cerebellopontine angle lesions, and Ménière disease. In many cases, the cause of SSNHL is not apparent.

Symptoms of Sudden Hearing Loss

Most (95 percent) of Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSNHL) cases involve the loss of hearing in one ear. The hearing loss ranges from mild to profound and can affect low, high, or all frequencies. Related symptoms include tinnitus (ringing in the ears, present in 80 percent of cases), sensation of ear fullness (present in 80 percent of cases), and vertigo (present in 30 percent of cases). The average age of those affected by SSNHL is 50 to 60 years.

Prevention and Treatment of Sudden Hearing Loss

Patients with SSNHL usually receive treatment from an otolaryngologist or audiovestibular physician, which includes a neuro-otologic exam, neurological exam of the inner ear, and cardiovascular exam. Treatment varies and depends on the underlying cause of SSNHL. Common treatments include a short course of oral prednisone and intratympanic dexamethasone. In some studies, over 60 percent of SSNHL patients recover their hearing within five years and most within two weeks.