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Sudden Hearing Loss, You Should Treat it as a Medical Emergency

Sudden Loss of Hearing, What You Need to Know

Sudden Hearing Loss, What You Need To Know

Not all sudden hearing losses are necessarily a really bad sign, the problem is that it could be, so therefore you should treat it as such. Sudden Sensorineural hearing loss appears to be on the rise and it should be treated as a medical emergency when it occurs. The faster you get treatment, the better the outcome may be for your hearing. The problem is that sudden hearing loss could be conductive in nature, not a problem with your cochlea (inner ear). So how will you know? Is there a difference? The answers are you may not be able to tell and while there are differences in symptoms, they can be very subtle. Let's talk about sudden hearing loss.

Types of Sudden LossSymptoms of Sudden Loss Treatment

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Different types of Sudden Hearing Loss, What are They?

Sudden sensorineural hearing loss tends to be just that, very little warning, just a sudden event. However, not all sudden hearing loss is sensorineural (inner ear related). There are two types of sudden hearing loss that may happen, they are:

Sudden Conductive Hearing Loss

A conductive hearing loss is a hearing loss that is caused by a problem in either the middle ear or the outer ear. Sometimes a temporary sudden conductive hearing loss may occur caused by wax or middle ear infection. Both can generally be diagnosed and treated easily.

A clear indication that it may be wax is if the hearing loss occurs after a swim. a bath or a shower. Wax is like a sponge, it will soak up water very quickly, as it does it expands. If there is enough wax in the ear canal, it will expand enough to block the ear canal and cause issues with your hearing. Even if you think the problem is wax, get it checked quickly, do not put it off. 

A clear indication of a mid ear infection being a cause of hearing loss is pain in the ear affected. Normally in a sudden sensorineural hearing loss there is no pain. Again, even if you think it may be an infection, go and get attention. In fact a mid ear infection can cause real complications for hearing. The quicker it is treated, the better the outcome.  

Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSHL)

Sensorineural hearing loss refers to an inner ear hearing loss, what is commonly known as nerve deafness. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL) may be caused by a viral infection or some sort of cardiovascular event. The causes can be unclear, however, it needs to be diagnosed and treated quickly. 

SSHL is defined as a greater than 30 dB hearing reduction, over at least three contiguous frequencies, occurring over a period of 72 hours or less. Some people report that their hearing loss was noticed immediately often in the morning. However, some report that their hearing loss developed over a period of hours or days.

The severity of this type of hearing loss often varies from one person to another, oddly enough, usually only one ear is affected at the beginning. However, it may spread to the second ear over time and research makes it clear that it often involves both ears. The issue really is that the symptoms of both types of loss can be very similar, this is why rapid investigation is needed. Rapid treatment for SSHL can mean almost total recovery, some people who develop SSHL may in fact recover totally without treatment, but many don't, so why take the risk?

Causes of SSHL

There is varying thoughts about the underlying causes of Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss. It can be some sort of a cardiovascular event which impairs blood supply to the cochlea. However, there are many theoretical causes for sudden hearing loss which include infectious, circulatory, inner ear problems like meniere’s disease, neoplastic, traumatic, metabolic, neurologic, immunologic and toxicity. Even after a thorough search for a possible cause, the cause of sudden hearing loss nearly always remains idiopathic (fancy term for we don't have a clue) in most people. The possible causes are:

  • Infectious diseases
  • Trauma, such as a head injury
  • Autoimmune diseases 
  • Ototoxic drugs (drugs that damage the inner ear)
  • Blood circulation problems
  • A tumor on the nerve that connects the ear to the brain
  • Neurologic diseases and disorders
  • Disorders of the inner ear, such as Ménière’s disease

The Symptoms of Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Many people who have suffered the condition mention that ear pressure and/or tinnitus were the first signs that they suffered. The symptoms can occur immediately all at once or over a period of time, usually in one ear. The severity of the symptoms may vary significantly. In worst case scenarios, permanent deafness may be possible, that is why it needs to be treated immediately. The typical symptoms mentioned by sufferers are: 

  • Occurrence of sudden noticeable hearing loss
  • The absence of an earache
  • Hearing loss in only one ear
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of sensation in the outer ear
  • Ear pressure
  • Tinnitus

The most obvious symptom is a sudden hearing loss in one ear, in particular if it is not accompanied by an earache. Some people have also suffered some dizzy spells and slight nausea. Tinnitus is usually reported by most people and dizziness is reported by about 40% of people. Many people say that the earliest symptom is a feeling of pressure deep in the ear and some talk about a pop or loud crackle sound which immediately leads to tinnitus.

Treatment of sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Over the years the treatment of sudden sensorineural hearing loss has varied. The real problem is that because we are still uncertain of the cause, it is difficult to provide a treatment that we are sure will work. The one treatment that is consistently used and has shown good results is steroid therapy. The treatments used so far have included:

  • Systemic steroids
  • Antiviral medications
  • Vasodilators (open vascular system)
  • Carbogen (high levels of oxygen) therapy
  • No treatment at all
  • Hearing Aids

Steroids

Corticosteroid therapy (usually orally) is among the few treatments that are accepted across the world for the treatment of SSHL. In recent times, treatment with injections of intratympanic (through the ear drum) steroids are being tested to see if they improve hearing recovery. However, a study in  2011 showed no real difference in hearing recovery for oral vs. intratympanic steroid treatment (Rauch et al 2011).

Antiviral Medication

The theory for the use of antiviral medication is based on the fact that the herpes simplex virus seems to be connected to SSHL in some cases. While the use of antivirals in early tests in animals looked hopeful, it hasn't proved especially effective in humans. 

Vasodilators

The use of vasodialtors is based on the theory that a cardiovascular event may have caused the problem. Again the theory is valid, however, in practice it looks like using them may make no difference. There isn't any real hard evidence that they help. 

Carbogen Treatment

Again, this was a combination treatment that was introduced many years ago, however, the effectiveness of the oxygen treatment has not been conclusively established. 

No Treatment at All

The basis for giving no treatment at all was the fact that many people seem to recover from sudden sensorineural hearing loss without intervention. In fact it has been reported that up to two thirds of cases just recover. 

Hearing Aids

In cases where other treatments are exhausted and the hearing loss remains, hearing aids are the only long term answer to treating the hearing loss. If the loss is only to one ear, hearing aids and amplification to the ear with hearing loss can be successful. However, not in all cases, sometimes it appears that the damage to the cochlea causes problems with speech resolution.

CROS Systems

In cases like this, a specialist hearing aid system called a CROS (Contralateral Routing Of Signal) system is a better option. The CROS system works by wirelessly sending the sound from the bad side to the good ear. Amazingly it works very well and it gives people a sense that they are hearing from both ears. 

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