It’s natural to experience some hearing loss with age, but this type of hearing loss occurs slowly over time. If your hearing declines rapidly and you’re not sure why, it’s important to visit an ear, nose and throat specialist. You could be experiencing sensorineural hearing loss (SHL). SHL is a nerve problem with a very small treatment window. If you miss it, your hearing loss may become permanent.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss Causes
In the United States, doctors diagnose about 66,000 cases of SHL every year. They’re not sure exactly what causes it, however, although there are a few theories. One is that certain viral infections might cause the disorder. Others suspect an immune system dysfunction, ear injuries that cause inflammation or a decrease in blood flow to the ear. Anyone can experience SHL, but it most often strikes people in their 50’s and 60’s. SHL is sometimes the result of a stroke or tumor, as well.
Hum a Little Tune
The hearing loss experienced with SHL happens quite quickly when compared to the gradual hearing loss that comes with age, but it’s not instantaneous. Most people experiencing SHL notice their hearing fade over a matter of a few minutes to several hours. Some people also hear a popping noise.
Unfortunately, SHL mimics the hearing loss you may notice when you have a cold or get water in your ear. As such, many people mistake SHL for more benign conditions. To see if there is a reason for concern, hum to yourself. If the humming sounds louder in the affected ear, you’re probably just congested. If it doesn’t, you could have SHL.
In addition to your hearing, SHL can also affect your balance. This can lead to dangerous falls. If you’ve been falling or find yourself frequently off-balance, you should visit your doctor and ask about SHL.
The hearing loss associated with SHL can become permanent but is less likely to do so if you seek prompt medical attention. For best results, your doctor will want to begin treating your SHL within 10 to 14 days of onset. Treatment typically involves a course of steroids given over a two- to three-week period. Steroids are often given orally but your doctor could instead opt to inject them directly into your ear. If so, expect to receive two injections per week for two weeks.
Never ignore a sudden or unexplained hearing loss. The sooner you receive treatment the better the odds that your doctor can fully restore your hearing. Fast treatment also allows your doctor to verify that your SHL isn’t indicative of another issue, such as stroke. It’s far better to take a cautious approach and have your ears checked, and doing so may preserve your hearing.