Most hearing loss is not an emergency. It’s either gradual, happening slowly over years, or it’s temporary, from an ear infection, for example, or from a build-up of wax in the ear. However, there is one case when hearing loss is a medical emergency: when it’s sudden.
Sudden hearing loss should always be treated as a medical emergency. It may not actually BE an emergency. Maybe it’s a shift of the wax in your ear which now completely blocks off sound. Maybe it’s a build-up of fluid behind your eardrum because of the sinus infection you’ve been battling. BUT – maybe it’s your Inner Ear, which will lead to permanent damage of your hearing mechanism. How can you tell the difference?
You can’t! But your doctor can. If you experience a sudden change in hearing, occurring over hours or days, contact your primary care physician right away. This is especially important if you’ve also noticed a sudden case of ringing in the ears or spinning dizziness (vertigo). If your primary care doctor’s office can’t fit you in, try an Urgent Care center. The physician’s job in this case is to ascertain what is causing the hearing loss. If it’s a problem with wax, or with fluid build-up behind the eardrum, or with any of the myriad other things that can change your hearing temporarily, your doctor will treat you. However, if they discover that your hearing difficulty is a sudden change in hearing in your Inner Ear, you’ll need an urgent referral to an otolaryngologist (that’s an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor).
So what should your doctor do to determine if your hearing loss is coming from your Inner Ear? First, they should look in your ear with an otoscope and make sure it’s not plugged up with wax. If there is no wax impaction, they can indirectly assess your Inner Ear using a quick, simple, painless tool: the tuning fork! Every doctor should have a tuning fork at the ready for cases just like these.
Tuning fork tests can help tell your doctor where the problem is in the ear system. There are a couple of different tests that are used; sometimes the tuning fork will be placed next to your ear, and sometimes it will be placed on the bone behind your ear, or on top of your head.
So what will happen at the otolaryngologist’s office once you’ve secured your emergency appointment? First, you’ll see an audiologist who will accurately measure your hearing in both ears and assess what type of hearing loss you have with much more snazzy equipment than a tuning fork! Then, your otolaryngologist will present you with a treatment plan in the hopes of recovering as much hearing as possible. The sooner you get started with treatment, the greater your chance of recovering your hearing. This is why it is so important that you are educated about this issue and can advocate for yourself. Time is of the essence, and not all physicians out there will treat a sudden hearing loss as the emergency that it is.
Ideally, you’ll be able to begin treatment within just a few days of noticing your sudden hearing loss. However, we’ve seen many instances of people who noticed a sudden loss months ago, and didn’t pursue medical attention. Or, they pursued medical attention, but their doctor assumed they had a temporary hearing loss due to an ear infection and treated with several rounds of antibiotics, thus wasting weeks of time before getting the patient the appropriate treatment.
If you notice a sudden change in your hearing,
- Contact your physician immediately and demand an emergency appointment. If they can’t make that happen, go to Urgent Care.
- Ask the doctor to assess whether the hearing loss is in the Inner Ear. If they pull out a tuning fork, breathe a sigh of relief.
- If you are uncomfortable with the diagnosis, or feel you are not being heard, ask for an emergency audiology appointment. An audiologist will take a complaint of sudden hearing loss very seriously.
- Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. Remember, the faster a sudden hearing loss is acted upon, the more likely that some or all of the hearing can be recovered!