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New way to treat sudden deafness

June 3, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Imagine thinking something is wrong with your phone or radio or iPod, only to find out your hearing is suddenly lost in one or both ears. Sudden deafness can happen over a period of days or all at once, and a variety of things can cause it. Now, experts say there's a new, more effective treatment to help people get their hearing back.

On Mother's Day, Yuriko Katayama got a call from her daughter but she had trouble hearing her speak.

"I could barely hear her so I said, 'There's something wrong with your phone, call me back,'" she said.

Her daughter called back three times. On the third time, Katayama thought it might not be the phone and switched ears.

"I could hear so I told her, 'I'm sorry it's my ear not your phone,'" she said.

The 64-year-old San Gabriel resident realized she had suddenly lost hearing in her right ear.

Dr. William Slattery, head of the Department of Clinical Studies at the House Research Institute, says this occurs in about one in 5,000 people. He says the most common cause of sudden deafness is ear wax impaction, but it could be something much more serious.

In 3 percent of patients, the cause is a brain tumor, but often it's inflammation due to a virus. If it's not treated immediately, Dr. Slattery says the hearing loss could be permanent.

"You want to see an ear doctor immediately and the reason for that is we know that if you start treating sudden deafness soon, that the results are actually better as far as the possibility of restoring hearing," he said.

The most common way to treat sudden deafness is with oral steroids such as prednisone, but the side effects include insomnia, depression and hypertension. However, it can't be given to people with diabetes because it can raise blood sugar.

Katayama has type 2 diabetes, so instead of taking an oral steroid, Dr. Slattery injected her ear drum with steroids. He and several researchers across the country followed 250 patients to determine which was more effective: oral steroids or injection.

"What we found is that injections are just as effective as oral steroids," said Dr. Slattery. "In fact, the results are actually equal between the two."

For Katayama, it was the perfect solution. She started getting her injections right away and says her hearing is slowly returning.

"It's getting better, especially the low tone that I lost the hearing of," she said.

Sudden deafness usually occurs in people between the ages of 30 and 60. If you're experiencing any kind of sudden hearing loss, Dr. Slattery advises to see an ear, nose and throat doctor right away.

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