Treating and Recovering From Sudden Hearing Loss: What to Know

Sudden hearing loss can cause quite a scare. It can occur from nowhere and affect anyone at any stage. In many cases, a full recovery with hearing restoration is possible. 

However, some have hearing loss or conditions like tinnitus, even after treatment.

Thankfully, interventions like hearing aids, cochlear implants, and audiological rehabilitation can provide some relief. 

Since sudden hearing loss can have numerous causes, it is still considered a medical emergency. Sudden hearing loss is serious, and a healthcare provider can help. 

Here, we give you the information you need to know by examining the potential causes and treatments of sudden hearing loss. 

What Is Sudden Hearing Loss?

Sudden hearing loss or sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL or SSNHL) affects up to six people per 5,000 every year, according to National Institute of Health data.

While SSHL can affect anyone at any age, it is more prevalent among adults in their late 40s and early 50s.

This condition is an unexplained and rapid loss of hearing. It can happen all at once or over a few days. SSHL is also referred to as sudden deafness. 

Sometimes, people simply wake up to discover they cannot hear from one of their ears.

Others may experience a sensation that feels like “pop” right before their hearing goes. 

This condition can affect both ears (bilateral) but typically affects only one ear, referred to as unilateral hearing loss.

Degrees of Hearing Loss

While a sudden loss of hearing defines SSHL, the amount of hearing loss can vary in degree, including mild, moderate, and severe. 

The degree of hearing loss uses decibels (dB) to measure, and hearing tests can confirm the degree. 

Ranges for mild to moderate hearing loss are between 26 to 55 dB, while moderately severe to profound hearing degrees of hearing loss are considered 56 dB or more. 

Quick facts to know about SSHL

  • It is considered a sudden hearing loss when there is a loss greater than 30 decibels over three frequencies, occurring over three days or less. This is sometimes called idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss (ISSNHL). 

  • Roughly 70 percent of those with SSHL also experience symptoms of tinnitus (ringing in the ear). Rather than the outer or middle ear, SSHL happens in the inner ear, specifically the cochlea. 

Common Symptoms of SSHL

Aside from sudden hearing loss, symptoms of SSHL can include dizziness and vertigo, a full feeling in the ear on the affected side (aural fullness), and tinnitus.

What Causes Sudden Hearing Loss?

Since SSHL is typically idiopathic, the exact causes are not determined in most cases. About 10 to 15 percent of cases have a known cause.

However, there are certain risk factors and potential causes to be aware of, including:

  • Earwax buildup or impaction in the ear canals. Heavy earwax buildup can clog portions of the outer ear and eardrum, not allowing sound to pass and leading to temporary hearing loss. 
  • Bacterial infections. Middle and inner ear infections can cause hearing loss due to immune system responses like inflammation and fluid buildup.
  • Viral infections. Also, viruses like mumps, measles, and meningitis have been associated with SSHL. 
  • Tumors can cause SSHL. There are a variety of tumors, both benign and malignant, that could contribute to SSHL. 
  • Trauma to the head. Head trauma that causes damage to the anatomy of the auditory and vestibular system (inner ear, cochlea, ossicles, etc.) can cause SSHL. 
  • Exposure to certain medications. Certain drugs can be ototoxic and contribute to severe hearing loss and SSHL. 
  • Inner ear disease. Ménière’s disease is one inner ear disorder linked to sudden hearing loss, as can autoimmune inner ear disorders. 
  • Neurological disease. SSHL could be related to neurology-related disorders like multiple sclerosis (MS). According to one systematic review, SSHL could be an early MS detector.
  • Vascular disorders. In some cases, vascular disorders that disrupt proper circulation and blood flow to the ear can contribute to SSHL. 

Many of these potential etiologies accompany other medical conditions and can be symptoms of a more serious medical condition.

SSHL is a medical emergency, and quickly seeking medical advice and attention is essential. 

How Is Sudden Hearing Loss Diagnosed?

Sudden hearing loss is usually diagnosed by hearing care specialists who work in the audiology, otology, and otolaryngology fields —  audiologist or ENT (ear, nose, and throat) physicians.

These professionals can diagnose and treat issues with the auditory and vestibular systems.

They can also administer audiometric tests (hearing tests) and interpret hearing data from audiograms.

With pure tone audiometry, hearing care specialists can measure how well you hear different pitches, frequencies, and volumes. 

Your provider will perform physical exams to check the ears for things like earwax impaction, infection, abnormalities, and trauma.

If sudden deafness is diagnosed, additional tests will likely be required. These could include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), balance tests, or blood work. 

What Are Treatments Options for Sudden Hearing Loss?

The treatment options for SSHL will vary depending on the cause.

This is why an evaluation by a hearing care professional who can perform a hearing test, physical exam, and medical history is so important. Below are some of the most common treatments for SSHL. 

Oral Steroid Treatment for SSHL

In many cases, doctors will prescribe corticosteroids.

These oral steroids help reduce inflammation, decrease swelling, and help the body fight infection, which is a primary cause of SSHL.

They may also prescribe antibiotics and antiviral medications to help fight infections. 

Intratympanic Steroids for SSHL

While oral steroids often prove effective, sometimes more intervention is needed.

In some cases, intratympanic steroid injections are required. Intratympanic dexamethasone injections are made straight through the eardrum and into the middle ear to target infection. 

While it does sound painful, the treatment has proven successful.

With its high recovery rate, intratympanic steroid therapy is among the most effective and most accepted treatment options. 

Hearing Aids and Cochlear Implants for SSHL 

Those with the longer-lasting effects of hearing loss always have the option to use amplification devices like hearing aids to regain hearing.

Surgical interventions like cochlear implants to improve hearing are also possible in some cases. A hearing care specialist will ultimately determine the appropriateness of each intervention. 

Earwax Removal for SSHL

Heavy earwax can contribute to SSHL by creating a blockage within the ear canal. Over time this impaction can worsen, resulting in temporary and sudden hearing loss.

Thankfully, earwax removal is minimally invasive and can be performed in a doctor’s office. A full restoration of normal hearing is very common.

Will My Hearing Return to Normal?

Since SSHL is a complicated condition with numerous potential causes, it is hard to determine if and when the hearing will return.

Promptly seeking medical attention will make the likelihood of recovery improve significantly. 

Even so, auditory research suggests that the incidence of recovering from sudden hearing loss is quite good.

Even if left untreated, 25 to 30 percent of people with SSHL will receive some hearing improvement. Seeking treatment raises the percentage of improvement significantly. 

Conclusion

Sudden hearing loss can occur without warning and affect anyone at any age.

While the exact causes for sudden hearing loss are numerous, there are effective treatment options to help recover some level of hearing. 

Since the etiologies are vast, sudden hearing loss is considered a medical emergency. So, quickly seeking medical attention is important. Hearing healthcare providers offer you the best chance to recover your hearing. 

These audiology professionals offer a clinical practice that can handle issues of hearing loss.

They are equipped with the tools and knowledge to diagnose, run the necessary tests, and follow up with treatment options.

References, Studies and Sources:

Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSHL) | NIDCD

Characteristics and Spontaneous Recovery of Tinnitus Related to Idiopathic Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss | PMC

Sudden hearing loss as an early detector of multiple sclerosis: a systematic review | European Review

Intratympanic steroid treatment in idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss: a control study | NIH

Reversing Sudden Deafness | Dana Foundation

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Angel Rivera Physician
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