Sudden Hearing Loss


Remember a few years ago when Rush Limbaugh lost his hearing overnight and came public about it?  Limbaugh was suffering from a Sudden Hearing Loss, which is not nearly as uncommon as one might think.  I’m not referring to ears blocked with wax or middle ear/Eustachian tube problems that make hearing temporarily be muffled.  I’m talking about Sudden Hearing Loss, which refers to a rapid loss of hearing that occurs over 1-3 days and is characterized by a shift in frequency threshold of 30dB or more at 3 consecutive frequencies.  According to the National Institute of Health, about 4,000 new cases occur each year in the United States, and it is most likely to affect people between the ages of 30 and 60.

Rush Limbaugh and his Cochlear Implant


During my years as a clinician, I have seen many cases of SHL.  Some have successfully recovered, others have not recovered and stayed the same, and yet others (a very small number) have gone on to lose the hearing in the other ear, too.  Many of them just woke up one morning and realized they couldn’t hear out of one ear, others hear a loud pop just before their hearing disappears, and even others did not notice it until they went to use a phone or device.
While some patients do recover completely without medical intervention, it is highly advisable to seek emergency medical attention immediately.  Go to your ER and tell them you have sudden hearing loss; if you go through the proper channels and see your primary care doctor, then your Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor, and then your audiologist, too much time elapses and there is much less of a chance that you will recover.  It is imperative to seek medical treatment as soon as possible; the most common treatment for sudden hearing loss is treatment with steroids, especially if the cause is unknown (usually the case).  With steroidal or antibiotic treatment, some people will regain their hearing over weeks or months.

What causes Sudden Hearing Loss?
There are more than 100 possible causes of Sudden Hearing Loss, so it can be difficult to identify specifically what causes it in each person.  We base our diagnosis on the patient’s medical history, but the most common causes are: infectious diseases, trauma (head injury), abnormal tissue growth, immunologic diseases, toxic causes, ototoxic drugs, circulatory problems, neurologic problems, and relation to disorders such as Meniere’s disease.  It is thought that a percentage of SHL cases are most likely autoimmune in nature; that means the hearing loss is caused by antibodies or immune cells attacking the inner ear.


The thing that makes Sudden Hearing Loss so scary is that there is no warning and it is not necessarily consistent.  There aren’t signs and symptoms leading up to it; you just wake up one morning and you are deaf in one ear.  While hearing aids can sometimes be used to treat SHL, other people have to turn to Cochlear Implants, like Rush Limbaugh did.  The severity of his hearing loss was so profound that traditional hearing aids wouldn’t help More about Cochlear Implants HERE.

What can you do?
You can help spread awareness.  If you see or hear of anyone who complains of Sudden Hearing Loss, encourage them to seek medical attention immediately; do NOT put it off or go through a lengthy referral process.  A person with SHL needs to be treated within the first couple days of symptoms for him or her to have any likelihood of improvement.  Talk to your friends, family, and doctors about this.

If you or someone you know has suffered from Sudden Hearing Loss, contact an audiologist to see if there is anything that can be done to help!  Maybe a hearing aid or a CROS system, or even a Cochlear Implant referral.  Just know you are not alone, and although we don’t know what causes Sudden Hearing Loss and that makes it hard to treat it, more advances are being made all the time.

Until next time,

Dr. Kristin