Everything you need to know about sudden sensorineural hearing loss, from causes to emergency treatment options.
Losing your hearing overnight sounds like the stuff of nightmares. Yet it’s something that between one and six people in every 5,000 will experience annually. We asked leading audiologist Duncan Collet-Fenson from Aston Hearing about the causes of sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL) and what you can do about it:
What is sudden sensorineural hearing loss?
SSHL, also known as sudden deafness, is defined as a drop of at least 30 decibels in more than three frequencies over a short period of time. Some people may wake up and realise they can no longer hear well in one ear, even though the previous day they have been fine. SSHL most commonly affects just one ear, although it can affect both.
SSHL differs from temporary hearing loss, which can be due to a build up of ear wax, having a cold or having recently been exposed to loud noise. However, the initial symptoms can seem the same, meaning sometimes people don’t take it seriously and often wait too long to get treated, which can result in permanent hearing loss. It’s therefore vital to treat any sudden hearing loss seriously.
‘If you were to suddenly lose your eyesight, you would most likely go straight away to casualty,’ says Collet-Fenson. ‘Yet we are still not placing the same level of importance on our hearing. If you suddenly lose your hearing, it could well be a medical emergency. If you have suffered from SSHL, waiting even just two weeks for medical advice is likely to result in complete loss of hearing in the affected ear.’
Causes of SSHL
Sudden hearing loss can occur at any time for a variety of reasons. ‘SSHL is thought to have various possible causes,’ explains Collet-Fenson. These include:
- A viral infection
- Blood circulation problems
- Head trauma
- An autoimmune disease
However, in most cases, the exact cause is never found, which makes prevention much harder. ‘In fact, only 10 per cent of those diagnosed have an identifiable cause,’ says Collet-Fenson.
Who is most likely to experience SSHL?
SSHL seems to be most prevalent in people aged between 30 and 60. Collet-Fenson reveals that you may be more susceptible if you have experienced any of the following:
🔹 You have recently experienced trauma to the head
🔹 You have recently had an ear infection
🔹 You have blood circulation issues
🔹 You have Ménière’s disease, or a neurological disorder, such as multiple sclerosis
Symptoms of SSHL
SSHL can occur without any warning, although sometimes there may be signs that something is amiss.
‘You may notice its onset by a “pop” in one ear before the hearing disappears, or it may fade away over a few hours,’ reveals Collet-Fenson. ‘It may only be apparent when you try to use the phone on the affected ear. SSHL may also be accompanied by vertigo (dizziness), tinnitus (ringing in the ear) or a feeling of fullness in the ear.’
Treatment for SSHL
‘The symptoms of SSHL and temporary hearing loss are very similar, so you may be tempted to put the symptoms down to a temporary blockage caused by wax or fluid,’ says Collet-Fenson. ‘However, these symptoms may also be a result of SSHL, and therefore all types of sudden hearing loss must be checked, in order to rule out anything serious.’
The symptoms of SSHL and temporary hearing loss are very similar.
If you notice that you have suddenly lost hearing in one (or both) ears, it’s important to treat it as a medical emergency and seek assistance as soon as possible from an audiologist, or go straight to A&E or an ENT department. Prompt action is essential to try and reverse the hearing loss. Ensure you request an emergency audiogram, as this can show evidence of the hearing loss and will also rule out other possible causes, such as ear wax.
‘In 50 per cent of cases, hearing could be restored with the right and immediate medical attention, but unfortunately this is often not sought quickly enough,’ says Collet-Fenson.
‘SSHL is most commonly treated with a course of high-dose oral steroids, or in some cases steroid injections into the ear, to help to reduce swelling and inflammation. It is suggested that SSHL should be treated within two to three days of the initial loss of hearing to achieve the best possible outcome. Waiting even just two weeks for medical advice is likely to result in complete loss of hearing in the affected ear.’
How can you prevent SSHL?
While the causes of SSHL are unclear, making prevention difficult, Collet-Fenson says that ensuring you maintain good health is one of the best ways to also protect your hearing.
Ensuring you maintain good health is one of the best ways to also protect your hearing.
‘Protect your hearing at work and in loud environments if needs be, and get your hearing tested every two to five years, depending on your age,’ recommends Collet-Fenson. ‘Always wear a helmet when playing contact sports or riding a bike, treat sinus infections early, keep a check on your blood pressure, as high blood pressure can cause a vascular episode in the cochlea, have a healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight, don’t smoke and get enough sleep.’