When is Hearing Loss a Medical Emergency?

Sign reading Emergency

“I woke up this morning and I couldn't hear out of my right ear!”

This is a common complaint for someone who has experienced a sudden hearing loss. More often than not, that person will wait several days or even weeks to seek medical attention for the change in hearing.

Unfortunately by that point, it may be too late to reverse the hearing loss.

Hearing loss is one of the most common disorders among all age groups, but it is often ignored for years.

While we can argue about the negative effects of hearing loss on a person's quality of life, many people feel they can “just get by” with a hearing loss without seeking treatment.

Hearing loss on its own may never require the use of 911, but there are a few cases in which hearing loss should be treated as a true medical emergency.

Sudden Hearing Loss

Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), sometimes also referred to as sudden deafness, is a rapid drop in hearing level in one or both ears. This may occur all at one time or over the course of a few days.

Anyone who experiences a sudden hearing loss in one or both ears, should see a physician as soon as possible. Sudden hearing loss should be treated by an ENT physician as a medical emergency. It should also be treated as an audiological emergency, in which the patient is also seen by an Audiologist to determine site of lesion, cause, and provide aural rehabilitation options in a timely manner. An Audiologist and ENT should work together to determine best course of treatment once a sudden sensorineural hearing loss has been diagnosed.

Many people do not seek medical treatment right away because they wait to see if the hearing will recover on its own, or because they assume there is wax build-up in the ear causing the hearing loss. However, delaying treatment of sudden sensorineural hearing loss can significantly decrease the effectiveness of treatment.

Those who wait several days or weeks to seek treatment from an Otolaryngologist will likely find that by that time the benefits of treatment can already be lost.

Some people notice other symptoms along with the sudden hearing loss, including a “pop” in the ear, ringing or roaring in the ear, or even dizziness. Other people will have no other symptoms and simply wake up one morning with a hearing loss. It doesn't matter whether there are secondary symptoms or not, a sudden hearing loss is a medical emergency. While some people can recover spontaneously from a sudden hearing loss, those who seek timely medical treatment have a greater chance of full recovery.

If you experience a sudden hearing loss in one or both ears, seek immediate treatment from an Otolaryngologist (ENT physician). They are uniquely trained to handle these cases to reduce the likelihood of a permanent hearing loss.

Congenital Hearing Loss

If a child does not receive auditory stimulation by the time they are 3 years old, their likelihood of developing normal language skills is slim. Therefore, when a baby is born with hearing loss, we must move quickly to reduce the effects of this auditory deprivation.

The auditory system becomes functional at about 25 weeks gestation. That means that an infant born with hearing loss has already had 15 weeks of auditory deprivation from not being able to hear sounds outside the womb. These sounds provide stimulation to the auditory cortex of the brain and aid in its development. Hearing loss causes delays in auditory brain development in infants with hearing loss, and should be addressed as quickly as possible after birth.

More infants with hearing loss are being identified early, with the help of the Universal Newborn Hearing Screening (UNHS) program in the United States. Professionals and parents need to follow through with infants who are identified with hearing loss in order to reduce the effects of auditory deprivation on that child's development of speech and language.

The goal is for every infant born with hearing loss to be diagnosed by 3 months of age, and have intervention services before 6 months of age. Providing these children with the appropriate intervention, whether it be amplification, cochlear implants, or other medical services, will greatly alleviate the negative effects the hearing loss could have on language development.

Hearing loss is something that should never be ignored, but these two cases qualify the hearing loss as an emergency. In the case of a sudden hearing loss, treatment should begin within the first 48 hours for best results. For cases of congenital hearing loss, the infant should be identified as soon as possible and intervention should begin shortly thereafter for best outcomes.

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