A sudden loss of hearing can be alarming. Finding clear information at short notice can add to the stress. This article covers some of the main reasons, with tips on what you can do next.
Below are the top reasons for why someone may experience temporary hearing loss;
- Ear canal blockage – usually by wax, though discharging “swimmers/tropical ear” can also be the cause. Hearing usually won’t change until the blockage is total. For this reason, when the final remaining canal space is closed it can feel like a sudden problem (though may have been active for many days, or longer). Wax prevention is best managed with drops and sprays. When these don’t shift the build up, removal by way of syringing, microsuction or manual extraction may be indicated
- Exostoses. This can lead to an extreme example of ear blockage. Sections of the bony portion of the ear canal can – in response to cold water or wind – grow inwards. If untreated by surgery, the canal space may close up completely. Ask for early signs of these from any health professional looking in your ears (especially if you’re in a cold climate or avid swimmer/surfer!)
- Cotton buds can produce hearing loss in 2 ways: i) by pushing the wax into an occluding mass (as in 2.); and ii) piercing of the ear drum. Despite their common usage, cotton buds aren’t a recommended ear wax cleaner (likewise, ear candles)
- Middle ear conditions e.g. fluid or “glue” behind the ear drum. In the acute phase sharp pain, ear ache or fever may be experienced. Some middle ear conditions are “silent”, however and hide an ongoing, fluctuating loss e.g an inattentive child with no complaint of ear pain. Vertigo, nausea and poor balance may be noticed. Another variation results from poor function of the “eustachian tube” – the tiny tube linking the middle ear to the back of the nose and throat. It’s function is to aerate the middle ear and drain fluid. Congestion may affect its function, often with other upper airway conditions e.g. allergies, hayfever, sinusitis or asthma. A feeling of pressure in the head or an echoey own voice may accompany. Treatment includes decongestants, antibiotics, steroids and surgery. Attention to immunology and allergies may also be recommended.
- Inner ear conditions. Usually inner ear “nerve” deafness is permanent e.g. the result of noise, ageing or some health conditions e.g. arterosclerosis. However a temporary version – almost always in one ear only – can appear suddenly. It’s not always known exactly what the cause is. However, a virus within the cochlear (fluid filled bony capsule of the inner ear) is often suspected. The loss may be accompanied by nausea, raised tinnitus, vertigo or headaches. Treatment within 24 hours by an ENT Specialist is optimal, so contact your doctor urgently if you believe you have this.
- Acoustic neuroma. This is a tumor, growing around the nerves of the organs of hearing and balance (usually on one side, though double neuromas are also seen). Symptoms include reduced hearing, raised tinnitus and vertigo. Facial sensation can eventually be affected. Management or removal by a surgeon is urgently indicated.
- Ototoxic medications are those which affect the hearing organ. These number around 200, and include some cancer treatments. Hearing loss and raised tinnitus are side effects. As damage can be permanent, advise your doctor if you notice hearing changes along with a new medication.
- Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS) is the result of loud noise e.g. amplified music, gunfire or machinery. Recovery can take minutes or days, depending on the loudness and duration of the sound. Raised tinnitus often accompanies. Repeated bouts of TTS increase the likelihood of permanent damage. If the usual hearing recovery doesn’t seem to occur or you’re mishearing more frequently, consult your audiologist.
Many of these conditions are common and easily treated. Others may lead to permanent hearing loss or be life threatening. Early detection is key to management in all cases. If you are facing any discomfort in the ear, take a hearing test to check your hearing capability.