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HealthWatch: Sudden Hearing Loss

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A doctor examines a hearing loss patient. (credit: CBS 2)

A doctor examines a hearing loss patient. (credit: CBS 2)

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NEW YORK (CBS 2) — More than 36 million people in this country suffer some degree of hearing loss. For most of them it happens so gradually with age that they almost don’t realize it. Some people wake up one morning and they’re deaf or almost deaf. CBS 2HD’s Dr. Max Gomex has more.

This kind of sudden hearing loss has happened to perhaps a million or more people in the U.S. Some of it can signal a serious medical problem, but most of it is what doctors call idiopathic, which is a fancy way of saying we don’t know the cause.

Either way it can be terrifying. Just ask Joanne Livote.

“I’d just got out of the shower and I noticed that my left ear felt full and sounds were a little muffled,” she said.

Even though Livote is a doctor, at first she didn’t take her hearing loss all that seriously. Until, she said, “I couldn’t understand what people were saying so I had to switch the phone to my right ear. It sounded like the teacher on Charlie Brown: ‘wa wa wa.’ You know I just couldnt make out the words,” she said.

So Joanne went to get a hearing test. The results got her attention. “When the audiologist said this is something serious and potentially permanent, I was a little frightened,” she said.

The concern was that sudden hearing loss can be due to some pretty scary things. “Sudden hearing loss can also be the indicator of a tumor growing on the hearing nerve which can present itself as a sudden hearing loss,” said Dr. Maurice Miller of NYU.

A thorough exam by an ear, nose and throat doctor plus a series of blood tests and brain scans ruled that out and so the diagnosis became idiopathic sensorineural hearing loss, basically hearing loss of unknown cause, although doctors have some theories.

“Interference to the blood supply from the cochlea, a virus which attacks the inner ear or a gushing of fluid from the inner ear following extreme strain, weightlifting, etc.,” Miller said.

Joanne was put on steroids and anti-viral drugs and within a few weeks, her hearing was just about normal. Although experts say that nearly two-thirds of patients with this type of hearing loss recover their hearing even without any medical treatment.

“There’s, I think, some subtle changes on the audio-gram but it feels normal to me, and there’s no ringing, which is great,” Livote said.

This sudden hearing loss almost always happens in just one ear and usually clears up on its own, but most patients will get steroids and anti-virals.

Any hearing loss is important to get checked out, because it could be due to a serious medical problem but also because there are some excellent hearing aids these days, as well as other technologies like cochlear implants that can restore hearing in most cases.

We all know people who are hard of hearing and don’t seem to want to get help. Part of it is vanity or admitting that we’re getting old. Hearing loss increases significantly with age. About half of all people over age 75 have hearing loss, but modern hearing aids are so tiny that often you can’t even tell someone is wearing one.

Experts said we’re about to see an epidemic of hearing loss due to loud music piped right into our ears by iPods and other MP3 players, so keep the volume down.

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