Do your ears feel stuffy? Are you struggling with dizziness or vertigo? Is there ringing or buzzing in your ears? If so, you could be experiencing symptoms of sudden hearing loss.

The Silent Alarm: Recognizing the Warning Signs of Sudden Hearing Loss

by | Jul 11, 2023 | Hearing Loss, Patient Resources

Do your ears feel stuffy? Are you struggling with dizziness or vertigo? Is there ringing or buzzing in your ears? If so, you could be experiencing symptoms of sudden hearing loss.

Experts estimate that SSHL (sudden sensorineural hearing loss) strikes between one and six people per 5,000 every year, most often adults in their 40s and 50s, but the real number of cases could be even higher since the condition often goes undiagnosed.

Many people recover quickly and never seek medical help, believing their hearing loss is due to allergies, a sinus infection, earwax plugging the ear canal, or other common conditions. However, SSHL should be seen as a medical emergency that requires immediate attention.

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports that “although about half of people with SSHL recover some or all their hearing spontaneously, usually within one to two weeks from onset, delaying SSHL diagnosis and treatment (when warranted) can decrease treatment effectiveness.”

Due to the seriousness of this condition, we want to make you aware of the warning signs of sudden hearing loss and encourage you to get the help you need from an audiologist or ENT specialist as soon as possible to prevent any long-term effects to your hearing health.

What Is Sudden Hearing Loss?

Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), commonly known as sudden deafness, is an unexplained, rapid loss of hearing—usually in one ear—that occurs suddenly or within a time frame of several days. According to Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), SSHL is characterized by a 30 decibel (dB) decrease in hearing capacity in three connected frequencies.

For an easy frame of reference, a 30 dB decrease makes normal conversational speech sound more like a whisper.

SSHL Warning Signs and Symptoms

The warning signs and symptoms of SSHL vary from one individual to another. Some notice SSHL the moment they awaken, some discover they don’t hear well out of one ear when they try to use the phone, and others hear a loud, alarming “pop” just before their hearing disappears.

Common characteristics of SSHL include:

  • Quick or instant loss that occurs instantaneously or gradually over less than 72 hours
  • Affects only one ear (Nine out of 10 cases affect only one ear)
  • Affects people in their 40s and 50s
  • Tinnitus—many experience tinnitus (ringing or buzzing sound) along with SSHL
  • Dizziness, vertigo, or balance issues (present in 60 percent of cases)

Try This Quick Test

Harvard Health provides a simple test that helps you distinguish between a regular stuffy ear, common with allergies or a head cold, and sudden hearing loss.

“Hum aloud to yourself. With normal hearing, you hear the sound equally in both ears. If you do this when you have a new loss of hearing in one ear, the humming will shift to one side or the other.

For example, if your right ear is affected and the hum is louder in that ear, then the hearing loss is more likely a conductive loss, and probably due to blockage from a cold or built-up earwax. (You can simulate this effect by humming while you cover your right ear.)

However, if the humming is louder in the left ear, it suggests the right ear hearing loss is due to recent nerve damage, and that requires prompt medical attention.”

Common Causes of SSHL

Unfortunately, only between 85 and 90 percent of diagnosed SSHL cases have an identifiable cause. According to Medical News Today, some of the identifiable causes include:

  • Head trauma, like traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Autoimmune disorders, like Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, Cogan’s syndrome, Wegener’s granulomatosis,
  • and Behcet’s disease
  • Infections, like otitis externa (inflammation in the outer ear) and otitis media (fluid buildup behind the eardrum)
  • Impacted earwax
  • Blood circulation issues
  • Neurological disorders, such as multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Inner ear disorders, such as Meniere's disease, otosclerosis, and autoimmune inner ear disease
  • Ototoxic medications, including some antibiotics, large amounts of aspirin, chemotherapy drugs (carboplatin,
  • cisplatin), and Vicodin (in large amounts)
  • Tumors, including acoustic neuroma, paraganglioma, and meningioma
  • Loud noise on one side, like a siren or explosion close to the ear

How Is Sudden Hearing Loss Diagnosed?

A pure-tone audiometry is used to help determine if the hearing loss is caused by sound not reaching the inner ear (because of an obstruction such as fluid or earwax) or by a sensorineural deficit (because the ear isn’t processing the sound that reaches it). The test also helps determine the severity and frequencies associated with the loss of hearing.

If your sudden loss of hearing is a loss of 30 dB or more, additional tests to determine an underlying cause for your SSHL are likely to be ordered. These tests could include blood tests, imaging (MRI), and balance tests.

Treatment Options Available for SSHL

Corticosteroids are the most common treatment for sudden hearing loss, especially in cases where the cause is unknown. Steroids help reduce inflammation and help the body fight illness. Steroids are usually taken orally, but those who cannot take oral steroids may undergo intratympanic corticosteroid therapy, which involves the direct injection of steroids behind the eardrum into the middle ear.

Additional treatments may include antibiotics to combat an infection, a change in medication if you have been prescribed ototoxic medication, or medication designed to suppress your immune system if your condition is caused by an autoimmune disease.

Sudden Hearing Loss Is a Serious Hearing Health Condition

Because it can correct itself within a couple of weeks, many people don’t take SSHL seriously. However, you’re gambling with your hearing health if you don’t seek immediate attention, because you don’t know if you’re going to experience permanent hearing loss until you have it.

Fortunately, eighty-five percent of those who receive treatment promptly will recover some, if not all, of their hearing.

If you noticed a problem with your hearing when you awakened, can’t hear well on one side when you use the phone, heard a loud popping noise before your hearing disappeared, are feeling a little off-balance, and/or are experiencing tinnitus, don’t gamble with your hearing—get the help you need ASAP. Contact our hearing clinic using the adjacent form and we’ll call you to set up an appointment.

Sudden hearing Loss is a Medical Emergency

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Monica Walker

After many years of working in busy environments to care for thousands of people’s hearing across Atlanta, I made the decision to focus on what actually matters – building real-world relationships to offer the highest level of hearing care available to trusted friends. Through the “HEARoeClub,” I work hands-on to personally care for a small number of incredible people to help them achieve better hearing, and going above and beyond to deliver much more than just hearing care.

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