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What is Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss?

Learn what this condition is, what can cause it, and what you should do if you experience it.

Sudden sensorineural hearing can occur in one or both of your ears.

If you’ve never heard of sudden sensorineural hearing loss, you’re not alone! To put it simply, it’s a lot like what it sounds like: sudden hearing loss in one or both ears, typically brought on by an illness or injury.

Informing yourself about what can cause sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSHL), the symptoms you may experience, and what to do if you experience it is the best way to protect yourself against SSHL.

What is sensorineural hearing loss? 
Sensorineural hearing loss refers specifically to hearing loss of the inner ear and is the most common type of hearing loss. The other main type is conductive hearing loss, which happens in the middle or outer ear. You can also have mixed hearing loss, meaning a combination of sensorineural and conductive hearing loss.

Sensorineural hearing loss can be brought on gradually, by aging or illness, or suddenly, as we’ll discuss below.

What causes sudden sensorineural hearing loss?
Unfortunately, experts aren’t 100% certain what causes SSHL. However, the most general answer is that it occurs when something happens to damage the sensory organs of the inner ear. This could be a viral ear infection, blocked blood circulation, an issue with the immune system, head trauma/an ear injury, side effects from medication to treat a severe illness like cancer, a neurological disorder, or other condition.

Noise-induced hearing loss also falls under the definition of sensorineural hearing loss. Sounds over 85 decibels can cause damage to the inner ear, especially when heard for prolonged periods of time. Here are some tips to protect yourself from noise.

Symptoms of sudden sensorineural hearing loss
SSHL, which is sometimes referred to as “sudden deafness,” has one primary symptom: loss of hearing or muffled hearing. In most cases, SSHL only occurs in one ear at a time, but sometimes it can affect both. It may happen overnight, so you’ll notice the hearing loss when you wake up. Or, you may feel a sudden “pop” before the loss of hearing.

Other possible symptoms of SSHL can include a feeling of fullness in the ears, tinnitus (ringing or buzzing), or dizziness. However, you can still have SSHL without these additional symptoms.

What to do if you experience SSHL
Since there can be other reasons for you to have muffled hearing, like clogged earwax or an ear infection, you may not immediately know whether your sudden difficulties hearing are necessarily due to sensorineural hearing loss.

But even if you’re uncertain, it’s important to call your doctor or audiologist right away. In the simplest scenario, it’s just earwax, and they can get it cleaned out for you. And if the cause of SSHL is something else, receiving treatment as soon as possible maximizes your chances of successfully restoring your hearing!

When you see a hearing care provider, they will likely use various tests to diagnose you. They’ll start by checking for obstructions in the ear. Then, they may use a “pure tone audiometry” test to determine the pitch and volume of sounds you can hear. They may choose to order blood tests, MRIs, or other imaging tests. They might also ask you to do some simple balancing exercises, since the ears are intimately connected to our sense of balance.

Treatment for sudden sensorineural hearing loss
Depending on what the doctor finds as a cause for your SSHL, your treatment options can vary. Usually, you’ll receive a course of corticosteroids, either in oral pill form or via injection. These can help reduce swelling and inflammation and boost your immune system. If there is an underlying cause, the doctor will also respond to that cause. For instance, if you have an ear infection, antibiotics are an option. If you have an autoimmune disease that damaged your ear, you’ll likely explore new treatment options for it with your doctor.

If you do experience sudden sensorineural hearing loss, don’t worry! About 50% of people who get SSHL regain their hearing within 1-2 weeks. The sooner you can see your doctor, the higher the chance you’ll be one of them!

Continue exploring our hearing loss blog for more information on protecting your ears, living with hearing loss, and more.