Gradual hearing loss occurs normally with age. However, if you experience hearing loss suddenly for no reason, it should be cause for concern. Sudden deafness, sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), or just sudden hearing loss, are all terms for unexplained loss of hearing at once, or over several days. Sudden deafness is a medical emergency.
Symptoms & Diagnosis
In the majority of cases, sudden hearing loss occurs in just one ear. Some people will notice their sudden deafness when they wake up in the morning. Other people will not notice it until they attempt to use the affected ear, such as answering a phone call. Others will experience a loud “pop” sound right before their hearing disappears. People experiencing sudden hearing loss may become dizzy or experience tinnitus.
Sudden deafness most commonly affects people between the ages of 40 and 70. In most cases, the cause is unknown. Known causes of sudden hearing loss include: head trauma, ototoxic medications, infectious diseases, and neurological disorders.
Your doctor or audiologist will perform a hearing test to assess the degree of hearing loss you are experiencing. If you are diagnosed with sudden deafness, you will likely be referred to an ENT specialist for additional testing. Blood tests, imaging, and balance tests may be part of the diagnosis process.
Sudden hearing loss is classified as a medical emergency, and prompt treatment is essential in recovery. Unfortunately, many patients believe their hearing loss to be caused by allergies or earwax and don’t seek medical treatment until it’s too late. Only about half of people that experience sudden deafness will regain their hearing without medical intervention.
Typically, sudden deafness requires treatment within 10-14 days or it can become permanent. The most common treatment is corticosteroids. They are commonly prescribed as oral tablets, but sometimes can be injected directly into the middle ear. With treatment, about 85% of patients will regain some of their hearing. Patients will milder hearing loss are more likely to have a full recovery. Patients with moderate to severe hearing losses will rarely make a full recovery, even with rapid treatment.
If your doctor finds an underlying cause of the sudden deafness, that may need to be treated as well. For example, if you have an infection, you may need to receive antibiotics to treat it.
The bottom line is that sudden deafness should always be a cause for concern. If your hearing goes away for longer than a day, you should always schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor or an ENT specialist.