Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL) can come on suddenly and rapidly, and nine out of 10 people with SSHL lose hearing in one ear. SSHL is usually due to problems with the sensory organs of the inner ear. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), sudden deafness or SSHL strikes one person per 5,000 every year, typically adults in their 40s and 50s.
The signs and symptoms of sudden hearing loss include:
- Unexplained, sudden, rapid hearing loss in the space of a few hours or over a few days
- Complete loss of hearing in one ear
- Loud popping sound in one ear before hearing loss occurs
- Feeling a buzzing or ringing (tinnitus) sensation in the ear before experiencing hearing loss
It is also possible that SSHL sets in without any symptoms at all. Patients have reported waking up in the morning with noticeable hearing loss or noticing it later when using the phone with the affected ear.
If you experience something similar, it is essential to consult a medical professional as soon as possible to avoid permanent hearing loss. Unfortunately, most people assume that the problem may be due to allergies, wax build-up, or a sinus infection. It is better not to assume anything and seek immediate medical attention instead.
As the name suggests, sudden hearing loss tends to come on suddenly and, in most cases, without any symptoms or warnings. Only about 20% of cases may have identifiable causes for SSHL. These are generally seen to be side effects associated with primary illnesses or medical conditions, such as:
- Head injury or physical trauma
- Ototoxic drugs (drugs that affect the sensory cells in the inner ear)
- Blood circulation problems
- Autoimmune diseases (e.g., Cogan’s Syndrome)
- Tumors (on the nerve that connects the ear to the brain)
- Neurological problems (e.g., Multiple Sclerosis)
- Infectious diseases
- Disorders of the inner ear (e.g., Ménière’s Disease)
A pure tone audiometry test is usually done as part of the hearing evaluation to diagnose SSHL. This test will help answer if your hearing loss is due to one of the following conditions:
- Sound is not reaching the inner ear due to an obstruction (fluid or wax build-up).
- The ear is not processing the sound that reaches it due to a sensorineural deficit.
A pure tone audiometry test reveals the range of hearing loss. If a patient experiences 30 decibels of hearing loss in three connected frequencies, it is diagnosed as SSHL. At this point, the doctor may also recommend additional tests, such as an MRI, blood test, and balance test, to find out the reason for SSHL.
In situations where there is no identifiable underlying cause for SSHL, treatment involves corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and swelling. The medicine may be administered orally or through an injection directly into the middle ear. The injection is usually a quicker means of bringing relief since the steroid travels immediately to the inner ear (intratympanic corticosteroid therapy).
For those with an identifiable cause for SSHL, your doctor will treat the underlying problem. This can include prescription antibiotics for treating an ear infection or a change in medication if the problem is linked to an autoimmune condition that rejects certain types of medicines.
On average, about 50% of people with SSHL recover part or all of their hearing within 1 or 2 weeks. However, ignoring the problem and the resulting delay in getting medical attention and treatment for SSHL can reduce the benefits of treatment and result in long-term hearing damage or even permanent hearing loss. Patients who seek diagnoses and treatment from an ENT doctor or an otolaryngologist are likely to have an 85% better chance of complete recovery.
If you think you are experiencing symptoms of SSHL, make sure you see your primary care doctor (or an otolaryngologist) and rule out any medically treatable causes. If your provider wants you to have an audiologic evaluation, call Advanced Audiology Care at (848) 231-6637 to schedule an appointment with Dr. Fan. You may also request an appointment online.