What is Sudden Hearing Loss?

Waking up and finding out you can’t hear is a scary prospect.

According to research, this type of hearing loss, known as Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSHL), occurs in 10-20/100,000 people per year but is estimated to be much higher for one major reason. This condition is “often misdiagnosed or regarded as age-related unavoidable fate.”

While SSHL is treatable and in some circumstances, one can make a full recovery, knowing the signs and characteristics of it is the first step to protect against this type of hearing loss and, potentially, prevent it from being permanent.

What is Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss?

Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSHL) is hearing loss caused by damage to the inner ear that occurs within a very short timeframe (24-72 hours). Though this condition most commonly affects those between 40 and 60 years old, it can happen at any age.

In many cases, this condition is discovered upon waking up and having difficulty (or the inability) to hear out of one ear. Many patients have also reported hearing a “pop” sound before the hearing disappears out of one ear.

“Patients have often told me ‘my ear feels plugged but I don't have any other cold symptoms’” says Vibe Hearing audiologist Annie Duchen, Au.D, CCC-A, “Or they say that ‘things sound completely muffled, not just quiet’”.

What causes SSHL

There are a variety of potential causes for this kind of hearing loss but most involve damage in some capacity to the inner ear. 

The inner ear is made up of multiple different parts, any of which if damaged can prevent you from hearing properly. Some examples of damage include a lack of blood flow or a ruptured membrane.

More often though, SSHL is usually the indication of an underlying condition such as a virus, disease, stroke, or an autoimmune issue. Certain medications, classified as ototoxic, have also been shown to have a negative effect on hearing. If you are concerned that the medication you’re taking might cause hearing loss, you should consult a physician.

Finally, in very rare cases, this type of hearing loss can be caused by a tumor on the auditory nerve. 

Due to the wide variety of causes, this sudden hearing loss might be accompanied by multiple other symptoms as well, such as vertigo or dizziness. This is because some conditions that cause SSHL attack the whole inner ear system which includes the systems we use to balance properly.

Either way, the most important thing to know about sudden sensorineural hearing loss for yourself and others is that if you have suddenly lost hearing is this: Seek help immediately.

What To Do If You Have Sudden hearing Loss

“If you already have an audiologist, call them first. Then call an ENT sooner rather than later and tell them you're experiencing sudden hearing loss. You’ll need a physical exam of the ear, make sure there's not an infection or anything else causing it.” notes Annie Duchen, AuD, CCC-A, “Ideally, you'll get a baseline hearing test so you’ll be able to know how much hearing you have lost and can measure improvement over time”. 

Here’s why the timing is so important:

Treatment for SSHL is usually a course of steroids. Research has shown that the sooner treatment begins the more likely that hearing could return in full. 

Those with milder hearing loss usually recover their hearing in full though that varies depending on a few variables including the amount of time it takes to get treated and the specific cause of the SSHL and if there are any other health complications that might slow healing (for instance, diabetes).

Why Understanding SSHL Is So Important?

When it comes to Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss, time is the most crucial factor. 

According to the NIDCD, although about half of people with SSHL recover some or all of their hearing spontaneously, you can maximize the results of treatment by seeking a diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible. 

The quicker you get treatment from a physician, the more likely it is that you'll be able to recover some or all of your hearing.

For more information about protecting against hearing loss, check out our blog post on 20 ways to protect your hearing this year.


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