Understanding Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss

An unexplained and rapid loss of hearing is known as sudden sensorineural hearing loss, sudden deafness or simply SSHL. There are a variety of conditions that can lead to this type of hearing loss, many of which require immediate medical attention. Knowing the signs and symptoms of SSHL puts you at an advantage, as early intervention is key to preventing permanent hearing loss.

Causes of Sudden Deafness Older man with Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss standing in public

The cause is unknown for most cases of sudden deafness, as only about 10% of patients ever find out why their hearing quickly vanished. Experts believe the following conditions are likely to blame:

  • Infections
  • Head trauma
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Poor circulation
  • Exposure to certain drugs
  • Multiple sclerosis and other neurological disorders
  • Meniere’s disease and other disorders of the inner ear

About one to six people out of every 5,000 are diagnosed with sudden deafness each year, most of which are in their late 40s or early 50s. Many experts believe the number of cases is much higher.

Symptoms of SSHL

Sudden sensorineural hearing loss can occur in a number of ways. Some report waking up without being able to hear, while others experience a loud pop before their hearing goes. A feeling of fullness in the ear, dizziness and tinnitus usually also accompany the onset of SSHL.

Most cases of SSHL only occur in one ear.

Diagnosing Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss

The first thing your doctor will do is examine your ear in hopes of discovering an obstruction, such as a buildup of fluid or earwax. Once this cause is ruled out, your audiologist will then complete pure tone testing to measure how well you can hear sounds at a variety of frequencies. This test is important, as a key symptom of SSHL is hearing loss of at least 30 decibels in three connected frequencies within 72 hours. This degree of hearing loss could cause normal conversations to sound like a whisper.

Additional tests may also be ordered to try to identify a cause for your sudden sensorineural hearing loss, such as blood tests, balance tests and imaging.

Treating Sudden Deafness

Your treatment will depend on the cause of your symptoms. If no cause has been identified, corticosteroids will be orders to help reduce inflammation, decrease swelling and help your body fight off an illness. Steroids work best when used as soon as possible. If treatment is delayed more than two to four weeks, your sudden deafness can become permanent hearing loss.

If the steroids do not help restore your hearing, you may benefit from hearing aids or cochlear implants.

To learn about the best treatment options for your type of hearing loss or to schedule an appointment with an audiologist, contact San Diego Hearing Center today.

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