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Sudden hearing loss: How to recognize an ear attack and tips for prevention

When the world suddenly becomes quieter: Typical symptoms of a sudden hearing loss

In Germany, according to the latest information from ENT doctors on the Internet, around 150,000 people suffer sudden hearing loss every year, a circulatory disorder in the inner ear. If you have not yet experienced a sudden hearing loss yourself, it is difficult to imagine how the hearing impairment manifests itself. Typical symptom: sudden hearing loss, also known as inner ear hearing loss or ear infarction, occurs very suddenly. From one second to the next, those affected hear much worse or almost nothing at all - usually only in one ear. There is usually no pain. In severe cases, the hearing is completely unilateral, a slight sudden hearing loss, on the other hand, often goes unnoticed - or the affected person only perceives the hearing loss with a delay if the ear infarction only affects individual frequency ranges of the hearing.

Many patients describe that a sudden hearing loss feels like having "cotton wool in your ear" - a dull feeling, as if a foreign body had entered the ear and impaired its function. In around 85 percent of those affected, the typical symptoms are accompanied by tinnitus, a non-localizable buzzing, whistling or humming in the ear or similar noises in the ear, which are usually in an uncomfortably high frequency range. Less common side effects are a feeling of pressure in the affected ear, dizziness, drowsiness and distorted hearing.

If you notice one or more of these symptoms, you should urgently consult an ENT specialist. Those affected often panic if they experience numbness or hearing loss in the ear - this stress can also accelerate and worsen the progression of the ear infarction. In the event of a suspected sudden hearing loss, the following applies: keep calm and seek professional help.

These are the causes of a sudden hearing loss

An ear infarction leads to a circulatory disorder in the inner ear, as a result of which it is no longer adequately supplied with oxygen and nutrients. This in turn impairs the function of the fine hair and sensory cells in the inner ear that pick up auditory stimuli. The result: the ear can no longer process sounds properly and transmit them to the brain, which can manifest itself in those affected with mild hearing disorders, but also with complete hearing loss.

The causes of an ear infarction have not yet been scientifically clarified. However, experts assume that several physical, but also psychological factors play together:

Emotional stress and tension

Anyone who has a lot on their minds at work or in their private life is at higher risk of sudden hearing loss. Constant emotional stress leads to an increased release of adrenaline in the body. This hormone constricts the blood vessels and throttles or cuts off the blood supply in the inner ear. This in turn increases the likelihood of an ear attack.

Chronic diseases and disorders

Spinal problems are a major risk factor for sudden hearing loss, for example signs of wear and tear on the cervical vertebrae, which can result from whiplash injuries in an accident. Blood pressure fluctuations, metabolic disorders such as diabetes mellitus, heart disease or the changes in blood vessels in the inner ear after a stroke can also trigger the dysfunction of the inner ear.

Infections

Bacterial infections such as Lyme disease, otitis media or viral infections such as influenza, measles, mumps or HIV can damage the hearing cells and worsen the blood circulation in the ear. A recent infection can also increase the risk of sudden hearing loss.

Overload from lifting or carrying

Lifting and carrying heavy loads is an underestimated risk to hearing. This can damage the sensitive "window" on the inner ear (fenestra cochleae), a small, round opening in the bone that connects the inner and middle ear. If the fine membrane has cracks, sound waves can no longer be transmitted correctly into the inner ear. As a result, perilymph - the fluid that is in the inner ear - can escape and form a perilymph fistula, which triggers, among other things, ear noises, balance and hearing disorders.

Diagnosing sudden hearing loss: this is how you can treat an ear attack

If there is a suspicion of sudden hearing loss, the attending physician will carry out some examinations: First, the doctor asks what symptoms are occurring and how long they have been going on. Information on the intake of medication and previous illnesses is just as important for the diagnosis, because these factors can also be responsible for an ear infarction.

The ENT doctor then examines the affected ear with an ear microscope. Usually, if an ear infarction is suspected, patients undergo a hearing test and tone audiometry, which determines the extent and frequency range of the hearing loss. Alternatively, the function of the auditory nerves and the associated brain areas can be checked with a brainstem audiometry. In the case of acute hearing loss, however, this diagnostic method is not advisable, as the ear is exposed to a high volume. The ENT doctor also uses further tests to rule out whether the sudden hearing loss is the side effect of another disease - for example, a herpes infection, meningitis, multiple sclerosis or a catarrh of the ear. In the case of viral infections, for example, antivirals or antibiotics can contain the inflammation.

In most cases, a sudden hearing loss will go away on its own within a few days. However, if it is an acute or severe hearing loss or if there is already hearing damage, the patient should receive further treatment, if necessary, in order to prevent permanent hearing loss. So far, however, the therapy options after a sudden hearing loss have been limited. Once the sense of hearing is damaged, it cannot be restored with technical or medicinal procedures. The only hope for severe hearing damage: hearing aids or hearing implants that use modern technologies to significantly improve the hearing ability and quality of life of those affected and enable normal everyday life.

If the hearing impairment is the result of inflammation, the "inflammation focus" can be treated with so-called glucocortoids, a cortisone preparation that has a decongestant and anti-inflammatory effect. The drug can be given in the form of tablets, an infusion, or a syringe. If the round “window” in the inner ear is damaged, it must be sealed by an operation to prevent infection.

Preventing sudden hearing loss: Protect and support ears in good time

To prevent an ear infarction and possibly permanent damage to the sense of hearing, you should support your ears with the following measures to stay healthy and fully functional:

  • Reduce stress

  • Avoid noise - or protect your ears with appropriate hearing protection (e.g. earplugs), for example at concerts or when doing noisy gardening

  • Avoid parallel sources of noise (e.g. conversations with music or street noise)

  • Buy quiet electrical appliances

  • In the event of unavoidable noise pollution, move away from the source of the noise and protect your ears in good time

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