A ringing in the ear, a feeling of fullness or sudden silence — these issues are not to be ignored, as Barbara Battenburg discovered.
“All of a sudden, just nothing,” she recalled. “I also had a fullness, and ringing. We were on a trip, but I called my primary care doctor right away.”
Making that call was critically important, said Shaulnie Mohan, M.D., ear, nose and throat specialist for NorthBay Healthcare.
“Loud ringing or an abrupt change in hearing is considered an emergency and a physician will send in a quick referral for the patient to see an ENT specialist,” she explained. “If I can see a patient with sudden hearing loss within 48 hours, there is a lot I can do to try and save their hearing.”
Barbara’s early intervention and close monitoring in the days and weeks afterwards probably saved her hearing, added Wendy Schreuder, audiologist for NorthBay Healthcare’s Ear, Nose, Throat and Voice specialty.
“People who experience sudden hearing loss may dismiss it at first, thinking it’s wax build-up or allergies, but it’s very important to see a doctor right away. It could be a virus. The longer you wait, the longer it takes to start treatment and the greater the risk of permanent hearing loss.”
Treatment usually includes an exam to rule out ear wax, and then a baseline hearing test that includes tone tests and a speech test to see if the patient can hear soft or clear sounds at a normal level, all to determine how much hearing has been lost. Then, a regimen of steroids will be prescribed to reduce inflammation around the nerves.
“After the course of steroids is done, I test the patient again to see if hearing has returned,” Wendy explained.
The process can take some time to stabilize, Dr. Mohan added, and is certainly benefitted by that early intervention.
Barbara’s first test revealed she had a significant hearing loss. Subsequent tests found it improved and then worsened.
“They told me it could be a virus that probably damaged my nerve endings,” Barbara said. “It’s a terrible thing to not be able to hear well.”
About a month into treatment, her hearing suddenly came back.
“It all happened so quickly, I didn’t have too much time to feel sorry for myself,” Barbara laughed.
Barbara has had annual check-ups with Wendy ever since, as NorthBay’s Ear, Nose, Throat and Voice specialty is the only one in Solano County to offer non-dispensing audiology services, which means it offers testing only, not sales of hearing devices.
“Barbara was fortunate because her primary care physician knew how important it was to refer her to Ear, Nose, Throat and Voice quickly following a sudden loss,” Wendy added.
Can You Hear Me?
If you have a sudden loss of hearing, particularly in one ear, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention. Signs of hearing loss may include:
- Fullness and ringing
- Muffling of speech
- Trouble hearing consonants
- Difficulty understanding words, especially against background noise or in a crowd
- Frequently asking others to speak more slowly, clearly and loudly
- Needing to turn up the volume of the television or radio
- Avoidance of some social settings.