It can be a frightening sensation: one day your hearing is as normal it has always been and then suddenly, for no apparent reason, you lose some or all of the hearing in one ear. This experience is more common than you may think. Experts estimate that sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL) strikes one out of 5,000 people every year, typically adults in their 40s and 50s.
SSHL could be a sign of a serious, even life threatening, underlying medical condition, or it could be something simple like a virus or infection. Like most medical conditions, early detection and treatment is vital to a good outcome. It’s important to note that even if the sudden hearing loss is a result of a relatively mild or easily treatable condition, failure to treat it promptly may cause irreversible damage in fairly short order.
The “sudden” in sudden hearing loss is actually fairly subjective. Some people experience a sudden popping sound, and their hearing in one ear is gone. For others it happens over a period of hours or a few days, typically no more than 72 hours. Depending on the severity, it may take a while for some people to notice the loss. For example, many people first notice the hearing loss in just one ear when they try using ear buds or headphones and realize one side isn’t picking up any sound. Sufferers may also experience tinnitus (ringing or buzzing) or vertigo (dizziness).
Causes of Sudden Hearing Loss
It’s often difficult for doctors to pinpoint the exact cause of SSHL. In fact, it’s estimated only 10 to 15 percent of cases can be directly attributed to a specific cause. Conditions associated with sudden hearing loss include:
- Viral infection
- Ruptured membrane in the inner ear
- Certain neurologic diseases like multiple sclerosis
- Bacterial infections
- Head trauma
- Inner ear disorders like Meniere’s disease
- Autoimmune disorders
- Certain medications
- Circulation issues (e.g. vasculitis)
It’s important to take any sudden hearing loss seriously, even if you believe the cause is just a minor ailment, like wax build-up or stuffiness due to an allergy or cold. If you suspect you have SSHL, we strongly encourage you to seek medical treatment immediately. In addition, you should make an appointment with a hearing health professional to determine the extent of your hearing loss.
In many cases, sudden hearing loss can be treated with early intervention. In cases where the hearing loss cannot be reversed, hearing aids and other assistive devices can help. In extreme cases of profound bilateral hearing loss, doctors may consider cochlear implants.