Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss

man with hand behind his ear

There are three types of hearing loss, sensorineural, conductive, and mixed hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss is caused by a problem in the outer or middle ear that prevents sound from getting to the inner ear. 

While sensorineural hearing loss (SHL) is caused by damage in the inner ear or issues with the nerve pathways going to your brain. Oftentimes, some of the hair cells in the cochlea are damaged, leading to SHL. A type of sensorineural hearing loss is called sudden sensorineural hearing loss, otherwise known as sudden deafness

On the other hand, mixed hearing loss is when you have elements of both conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. Meaning, there is damage to both the outer and inner ear. 

In this article, we go in depth about sudden sensorineural hearing loss and tell you everything you need to know about the condition, including: what it is, the causes and symptoms, and how to diagnose and treat it.

What is Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss?

sensorineural part of ear

Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSHL) is an accelerated, unexplained hearing loss that happens instantly or over the course of a few days. Sudden deafness typically affects only one ear, which is known as unilateral hearing loss. 

The inner ear has two sensory organs, the balance organ (vestibule) and the hearing organ (cochlea). If either of these organs are injured, typically from cell or tissue damage, sudden sensorineural loss is likely to occur. 

Some people with SSHL often hear a loud popping noise just moments prior to their sudden hearing loss. While others discover their hearing loss when they have to use their damaged ear for something such as listening to music through headphones or a phone call. Those with SSHL may experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Ringing in the ears (which is often caused by tinnitus).
  • Feeling like the ear is full of something such as liquid.
  • Feeling dizzy or light-headed .
  • Difficulty following conversations 
  • Difficulty understating phone conversations
  • Difficulty hearing high pitched sounds
  • Sounds are unclear/ people seem like they are mumbling

Experts say that sudden sensorineural hearing loss affects 27 per 100,000 people in the United states annually. Though, this statistic  is likely much higher as so many people with SSHL don’t seek treatment.. It can happen at any age, though it typically occurs in adults 50 to 60 years of age. 

If you want think you might have sudden deafness try the humming test:

  • Someone with normal hearing who is humming out loud will hear it equally in both ears. However, one with hearing loss in one ear will hear the sound only in that ear. This is a great way to tell if your hearing loss is conductive or not. For instance, if your hearing loss is in your left ear but you hear the hum louder in that ear, then your hearing loss is most likely conductive. Though, if you heard the hum louder in the right ear, your hearing loss could be due to a more serious problem with your ear and you should seek medical attention as soon as possible. 

Causes of Sensorineural Hearing Loss

protect your ears sign

Now that you know what sudden sensorineural hearing loss is and how it presents itself in one’s ear, you might be wondering what could cause such a drastic condition. While only about 10% of those with SSHL have a known origin for the condition, some causes include:

  • Tumors
  • Infections.
  • Head trauma.
  • Autoimmune diseases.
  • Neurological and inner ear disorders.
  • Exposure to drugs that can harm the inner ear.

The causes of SSHL are not limited to the above list, however they are the most common reasons that SSHL occurs. There are many factors that go into diagnosing SSHL, like whether or not the cause is paired with or resulting from another medical condition or whether the hearing loss is unilateral or bilateral. Based on your symptoms your doctor can rule out causes and get to the bottom of your hearing loss. 

Oftentimes, those with SSHL do not realize they have it because the symptoms are similar to sinus infections, too much earwax in the ear canal, earwax allergies, and other conditions. Due to this many people disregard their hearing loss, expecting it to go away before ever considering going to a doctor. Fortunately, about 50% of those with SSHL will randomly get some or all of their hearing back within two weeks from when their symptoms first appeared. However, sudden deafness is a medical emergency and it is critical to see a doctor immediately if you are experiencing any symptoms. It is vital to get your SSHL diagnosed and treated to avoid permanent hearing loss.  

How is SSHL Diagnosed and Treated?

corticosteroids

The first step in diagnosing and treating SSHL is making an appointment with your doctor. You could visit your general physician or an audiologist- a hearing care specialist- if you already have one. Your general physician will examine your affected ear with an otoscope and take note of your symptoms. They will initially check if your hearing issue is a form of conductive hearing loss - when sounds cannot get through the outer and middle ear. Conductive hearing loss is due to earwax buildup, fluid in the ear, ear infections, an obstruction in the ear, and more. These are less severe cases of hearing loss and can usually be treated solely by the general physician. 

If conductive hearing loss is ruled out, your doctor can give you a referral to an audiologist where you can be ordered a pure tone hearing test. Once diagnosed with SSHL, a series of various tests will be ordered for you to find the underlying cause of the problem. 

The most common treatment option for SSHL is a prescription for corticosteroids.

What are Corticosteroids?

Corticosteroids are a class drug that lowers inflammation in the body and reduces immune system activity. They are usually taken to reduce swelling, itchiness, and allergic reactions. Thus, the drug is prescribed most often for asthma, arthritis, allergies, and lupus. The name corticosteroids is derived from the word “cortisol” - a hormone naturally produced by the body’s adrenal glands. This is because cortisol helps your body stay healthy and is a major part of your body’s ability to prevent things like swelling and stress. So corticosteroids were made to resemble how cortisol works. The drug comes in different forms such as 

  • Skin creams
  • Eye and ear drops
  • Inhalers 

Like any other drug out there, corticosteroids do sometimes come with side effects. Side effects of corticosteroids include but are not limited to:

  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Difficulty speaking 
  • Oral thrush
  • Insomnia 
  • High blood sugar 
  • Acne 

The side effects will depend on the type of steroid you take, be it a cream, oral or inhaled. There are many more side effects that are not in the above list and they will be displayed on the packaging of the steroid you are prescribed. For more information about the side effects of corticosteroids, be sure to ask your doctor.

The best way to take the steroid is through a direct injection into the middle ear to reduce inflammation and fight off infections. However, the steroid can also be taken orally. Regardless, the corticosteroid you are given should be taken as soon as SSHL symptoms occur for the best results. As, delayed treatment can result in permanent hearing loss. 

Conclusion

red haired girl holding ear

SSHL, also known as sudden deafness, is an unexplained loss of hearing that abruptly occurs over the course of a few minutes or a few days. It’s reason for development is due to inner ear nerve damage, though its causes are typically unknown. Symptoms for the condition include dizziness, feeling fluid in your affected ear, or hearing a “pop” right before losing your hearing. Many individuals who are victims of the hearing loss condition go untreated because they mistake SSHL with being a side effect from a cold or allergies. That being said, it is imperative to seek medical attention if you find yourself with any symptoms of SSHL, otherwise you will be at risk of your hearing loss becoming permanent. The longer you wait to seek treatment, the more at risk you become. Once you seek help for SSHL you will most likely be prescribed corticosteroids, such as prednisone, to take for 14 days. Nonetheless, there is no guarantee that you will regain your full hearing after treatment, but it is very likely that you will regain most of it. 

 

Have you suffered a sudden sensorineural hearing loss? What symptoms did you experience?

Share your experience with us.

 

Thank you for reading this article,

Kathleen Williams

Senior Editor, Audien Hearing

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