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What is Sudden Hearing Loss?

Hearing loss is often thought of as something that gradually happens as we get older, but it can sometimes happen suddenly, and at any age.

There are two main types of sudden hearing loss: conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss.

1. Sudden Conductive Hearing Loss

Conductive hearing loss happens when there is a blockage in the outer or middle ear, meaning sound is unable to pass through into the inner ear. This can happen over the course of one or two days.

Common Causes of Conductive Hearing Loss:

  • A build-up or shifting of ear wax in the ear canal
  • An outer ear infection or inflammation, known as otitis externa
  • A middle ear infection e.g. due to a head cold
  • A head or ear injury that damages structures of the ear

Symptoms of Sudden Conductive Hearing loss:

  • Sudden or rapid (over a couple of days) loss of hearing in one or both ears 
  • Speech sounds muffled
  • Your ear feels stuffy or full
  • Pain in the ear or head
  • A clear or yellow discharge from the ear
  • Dizziness

Treatment of Sudden Conductive Hearing Loss:

A hearing healthcare specialist can determine the appropriate treatment for your sudden conductive hearing loss. Treatment depends on the cause and may include:

  • Removal of ear-wax build-up or debri from the ear canal
  • Prescription of nasal sprays or decongestants
  • Draining of excess fluid or grommet insertion
  • Surgical treatment to correct the ear structure
  • A hearing aid or auditory implant (in some cases)

2. Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSNHL)

Also referred to as sudden deafness or sudden-onset hearing loss, sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNHL), is defined as a sudden or rapid loss of hearing. This can occur all at once or within a 72-hour period. It can affect one ear or both, though more frequently affects one. 

What Does SSNHL Feel Like? What Symptoms Should I Look Out For?

Some people wake up in the morning with ear fullness or the feeling of a blocked ear that they are unable to pop. Others notice a loud “pop” or a whooshing sound just before their hearing diminishes. People with SSNHL often become dizzy, may have persistent ringing or buzzing sounds in their ears (tinnitus) and may feel uncomfortable around certain sounds, particularly loud noises. 

Other symptoms include:

  • Difficulty following group conversations, particularly when there is a lot of background noise
  • Speech sounds muffled
  • A feeling of fullness or pressure in the affected ear or on that side of the head
  • Balance problems: dizziness or vertigo
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty telling what direction sounds are coming from

It is also possible to have no symptoms other than a loss of hearing.

It’s not always immediately apparent that hearing has been lost. You may first notice it when you try to use the affected ear, such as when you use a phone or when using headphones.

Is SSNHL an Emergency?

Yes. 

SSNHL is a serious medical condition and requires prompt medical attention. 

What Should I Do if I Think I Am experiencing SSNHL?

If you think you have had a sudden loss of hearing, seek immediate medical attention from a doctor, an audiologist (hearing healthcare professional) or go straight to an emergency department (A&E). Early treatment can help save your hearing.

Sometimes, people with SSNHL put off seeing a doctor because they think their hearing loss will get better by itself, putting the cause of their muffled hearing down to allergies, fluid in the ear, a sinus infection, or earwax plugging the ear canal. Others may believe the cause to be stress or lack of sleep.

However, delaying SSNHL diagnosis and treatment may decrease the effectiveness of treatment.

*NOTE: Some medical practitioners may not be aware of the need to treat a sudden loss of hearing as an emergency. You may have to advocate for yourself if a loss of hearing isn’t approached as an emergency.

The following poster shows what to do if you suddenly notice you cannot hear in one or both of your ears.

Image Description: A checklist of what to do if you notice a sudden loss of hearing in one or both of your ears. Main message is to seek medical attention immediately.

Sources:

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hearing-loss/

https://www.healthline.com/health/sensorineural-deafness#diagnosis

Acknowledgements:

Thank you to Aston Hearing for allowing use of the infographic.

Many thanks to Roulla Katiri, audiologist at The Mater Misericordiae University Hospital, Dublin, for proofreading and editing support.

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