Sudden Hearing Loss - A Hearing Emergency – Act Quickly!
Rex Banks, Au.D. | Doctor of Audiology
Director, Hearing Health, Quality & Global Partnerships
Generally, hearing loss is slowly progressive and occurs gradually over time. But hearing loss can sometimes occur suddenly and without warning. This is called sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), also known as “sudden hearing loss” or “sudden deafness.” SSHL most often affects only one ear and can lead to permanent hearing loss. It is one of the few real emergencies we have in hearing care and requires immediate medical attention, treatment and audiological evaluation.
People experiencing SSHL may first notice it when using the phone with the deafened ear, when someone speaks to them on the affected side or when they wake up in the morning. Often, they are not sure what is going on and think the ear is just clogged. Tinnitus (ringing in the ear), dizziness, ear fullness, sound distortion or even a loud “pop” in the ear may also be noticed.
Research indicates that one to six people per 5,000 are diagnosed with SSHL each year. As SSHL often goes undiagnosed, the real number of cases may be significantly higher. The exact cause of SSHL is almost always unknown. Common causes include:
- Idiopathic (unknown cause)
- Viral infections
- Blood circulation problems
- Autoimmune diseases
- Toxic causes from certain drugs
- In some rare cases trauma, stress, or a head injury
- Disorders of the inner ear
If you notice any sudden changes in your hearing, you should immediately go to the emergency room or contact your primary care physician. The most common treatment, usually administered by an Otolaryngologist (ENT) doctor, is a steroid shot to the middle ear to help boost the immune system and reduce inflammation. Steroids often help, but there is only a short window of time for treatment, a few days up to two weeks, before hearing loss becomes permanent.
Those with mild to moderate to severe hearing loss are considered in the "steroid-effective zone" and have a high chance, about 75%, of recovery with steroid therapy. The earlier the treatment, the better the chances for recovery. People with profound hearing loss, which is a complete loss of hearing, those who experience dizziness (vertigo) with their sudden hearing loss, and individuals above age 65 have a much lower chance of getting their hearing back. Approximately half of people with SSHL recover at least some hearing without treatment.
In instances where the ear does not respond to treatment, an audiologist may recommend hearing aids or a cochlear implant. Audiological evaluation during the treatment process is key to monitor any improvement in hearing and to plan for next steps.
If you think you are experiencing hearing loss, contact our Audiology Team at 1-866-518-0000, or by email at email@example.com .
American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery (2019). Clinical Practice Guidelines – Patient Information. Retrieved from: https://www.entnet.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Sudden-Hearing-Loss-FAQs-Physician.pdf
Health Hearing (2021). Sudden Hearing loss in one ear. Retrieved from https://www.healthyhearing.com/report/52462-Sudden-hearing-loss-getting-to-the-bottom-of-it#:~:text=About%20one%20out%20of%20every,%2D40s%20to%20mid%2D50s.
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (2018). Sudden Deafness. Retrieved from: https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/sudden-deafness