February 5, 2023

Don’t Ignore Sudden Hearing Loss

Most people experience hearing loss as they get older. It tends to be a slower, steady loss that is hard to notice. For others, hearing loss can happen suddenly and often without understanding why. If that occurs, it's critical to seek out help as soon as possible.

Most people experience hearing loss as they get older. It tends to be a slower, steady loss that is hard to notice. For others, hearing loss can happen suddenly and often without understanding why. If that occurs, it's critical to seek out help as soon as possible. Sudden hearing loss can be a condition called sudden sensorineural hearing loss or SSHL. This is a type of deafness impacting the nerves, and it typically does not allow for a lot of time for improvement.

What is SSHL?

Sensorineural hearing loss happens when the tiny nerves of the ear are either damaged or die off, resulting in permanent damage. This is a gradual type of hearing loss that typically worsens over time and isn’t reversible.The “sudden” variety occurs very quickly, within a few days. During this time, sounds become more muffled and the ear may lose its ability to hear certain frequencies and pitches. SSHL occurs in one ear 90% of the time, usually affecting people younger than 50 years old.

Why Does SSHL Happen?

Sudden hearing loss isn't fully understood. Some experts point to various potential reasons for it. That could include:

  • A viral infection that leads to damage to the nerves
  • An immune system response that is not appropriate for the situation
  • An inflammatory injury or risk to the ear 
  • A lack of blood flow to the ear
  • Rupture to the membrane of the ear
  • Head injury or trauma
  • Tumors or abnormal tissue growths
  • Exposure to very loud sound (explosion, earbuds with sound cranked up, standing near booming speakers at a concert, etc)
  • Meniere’s Disease
  • Medications
  • More than one of these conditions

It can occur to people at any age, though it is most common in people who are mid-life, around age 50. Most people will experience an inability to hear in just one ear, and it can often feel like a pop has occurred, often making it seem like you hurt your eardrum or that the ear feels clogged with earwax. 

What to Expect with SSHL

Sudden hearing loss typically impacts people unexpectedly, and that may mean that there’s no warning that anything could be wrong.

It is typically not a sudden situation where one moment you can hear and the next you cannot. Rather, depending on the underlying cause, it will typically begin to fade over a period of several minutes and sometimes several hours before your hearing is completely gone.

Often, there are other ramifications as well. For example, because of the connection between hearing and the ear canal and balance, many people suffer from balance concerns at the same time, often leading to a fall. 

You may think that the sudden hearing loss is brought on by cold symptoms and that your ear is just clogged, making it hard for you to hear. Some people who are in this situation then go on to use cold medication that does not provide any real improvement. Others will clean their ears without improvement. 

Symptoms of Sudden Hearing Loss

How do you know if you have sudden hearing loss? It’s hard to know without first seeking out your doctor’s guidance. Some people experience the following types of symptoms from the condition:

  • It often occurs first thing in the morning, with some people waking up in the morning to it
  • You may notice a loud, even scary, pop sound from your ears before your hearing seems to fade away 
  • You may also have sudden onset of dizziness or a ringing in your ear within that moment 
  • Your hearing may be sudden – meaning it is gone within a few minutes. Other times, the hearing loss takes more time, sometimes as long as three days, to become fully eliminated.
  • You may also experience dizziness 

Take a humming test

How do you know if your ear is just stuffy like your sinuses? One way to do this is to hum to yourself. If you do this and you only hear the humming in one ear and not both, that could indicate SHL and not just a stuffy ear. The humming will typically only seem to be heard from one side, not the other. 

Then, hum louder. Let’s say the right ear is the one you’re not able to hear well out of. When you hum, you can hear it louder in the right ear. In this situation, there's likely a buildup of ear wax or sinus congestion playing a role. If your right ear is impacted, but you can hear the humming louder from your left ear, that’s an indication that there may be nerve damage occurring.

It is very common for people to just brush off this type of sudden hearing loss to a cold. Yet, it is very important for you to seek out medical attention right away if this is happening to you. There is a limited amount of time that you have to correct the problem to protect your hearing.

Get help quickly

If you have nerve damage that is causing your hearing loss, that's an indication that you need to act quickly to preserve your ability to hear. Seek medical treatment immediately if you display symptoms of SSHL. You decrease your chance of recovering your hearing the longer you wait to treat it. Your audiologist will conduct:

  • Physical exams to rule out earwax buildup or blockages
  • An audiogram to assess the severity of your hearing loss
  • Refer for an order for MRI or CT scan to detect other anomalies

Some people who get help right away for this type of hearing loss may still experience a situation where they do not see an improvement, or they may not see their full hearing restored. Those who have a mild case may expect to see the condition improve over time. However, those with more serious hearing loss are less likely to see a full recovery of their hearing even if they get help right away.

How Is SSHL Treated?

Sudden hearing loss may occur for various reasons. Your Audiologist and/or ENT will need to determine what the underlying cause is to create a treatment plan for your needs. Treatment can include:

  • Steroids to reduce inflammation in the inner and middle ear
  • Antibiotics for infections
  • Hearing aids or Cochlear implants to improve hearing

Will Your Hearing Be Restored After Sudden Hearing Loss?

Fortunately, sudden hearing loss can be treatable if addressed quickly. Up to 65% of those who experience an SSHL episode will get all or some of their hearing back within a month. 

If you do not see recovery of your hearing fully, you may benefit from the use of hearing aids to help improve your ability to hear well. Working with a local audiologist can help you to find the best solution for your specific situation.

Could a Tumor Cause Hearing Loss?

Another concern that may be a factor to consider when sudden hearing loss occurs is the presence of very small tumors or areas of scar tissue. This can lead to sudden hearing loss in some situations. Tumors are not always cancerous, but they do worsen over time if not treated. These tumors, called acoustic neuromas, are not common, but they do tend to occur in this fashion, just suddenly causing hearing loss. 

If referred to an ENT, they may schedule an MRI to help rule out any other type of illness or condition possible. Many times, doctors can treat this condition using steroids, especially if you get help for it early on.

Get Help Quickly

Come to Audiology & Hearing Services of Charlotte if you suspect you have SSHL. We guarantee personalized care, so you can leave knowing you’ve received the best possible treatment. Call us at 704-412-7975 or contact us online to learn more about our services. If you are not able to visit a doctor within 24 hours, go to the nearest emergency room.

Written by
Reviewed by
Dr. Melissa Karp, Au.D.
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Melissa Karp is a board-certified audiologist with special expertise in tinnitus treatment, auditory processing disorder (APD) evaluation, hearing aid fitting and aural rehabilitation.