Sudden Hearing Loss: The Answers You Need

Hearing loss often occurs gradually and can be a common symptom of aging. But it can also happen suddenly at any age, leaving a person feeling shocked and stressed in its wake. This experience, known as sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNHL) – or sometimes sudden deafness or sudden-onset hearing loss – is defined as rapid loss of hearing which happens in three days or less.

It is estimated that around 66,000 people are diagnosed with SSNHL every year in the United States, though this tally could be higher due to the number of cases that go unreported and undiagnosed. The hearing loss can affect one ear or both, though more frequently affects just one side. Typically triggered by problems with the inner ear or hearing nerve, this can be a permanent condition. Let’s take a closer look.

What are the symptoms of SSNHL?

Many people affected discover their hearing loss when they wake up one morning. Others notice a disturbing “pop” or a whooshing sound just before their hearing diminishes. Following the onset of SSNHL, some people experience a feeling of fullness in the affected ear or generally throughout their head. Some may become dizzy or have persistent ringing or buzzing sounds in their ears, known as tinnitus.

What causes SSNHL?

SSNHL can be caused by a range of disorders affecting the ear. These include, among others, head injury or trauma, Ménière's disease (an inner-ear condition that causes vertigo), acoustic neuroma (a benign tumor on the main nerve connecting the inner ear and the brain), and circulatory problems. However, a cause can only be identified in 10 to 15 percent of diagnosed cases. For the vast majority, the hearing loss is referred to as “idiopathic,” meaning the source is unknown.

What are the chances of recovery?

According to The Hearing Loss Association of America, about half of people with SSNHL will recover some or all of their hearing spontaneously, usually within one to two weeks after the onset. Furthermore, about 85 percent of those who receive treatment from an ENT (ear, nose and throat specialist) will recover some of their hearing.

Anyone who experiences sudden hearing loss should seek immediate medical attention. Prompt treatment (commonly with corticosteroids) can help save a person’s hearing; delaying diagnosis and treatment may decrease the chances of a positive resolution.

How does SSNHL alter daily life?

Hearing Tracker spoke to members of an online hearing-loss support group who had experienced SSNHL to learn more about the impact on daily life. The most common responses included:

  • Difficulty hearing in group settings, particularly in situations with background noise leading to feelings of isolation and social withdrawal
  • Inability to locate a sound source, affecting personal safety
  • Problems at work with communication-based tasks
  • Associated issues such as balance disorders
  • Increased listening effort, causing fatigue
  • Struggles with the related onset of tinnitus

Louise Bowdery, of Fareham, UK, experienced three separate episodes of SSNHL, which resulted in profound loss in both ears. She told Hearing Tracker, “The practical issues of sudden hearing loss include not feeling safe. I don't hear traffic until it's close to me, and I'm never aware of bikes approaching from behind.”

How does SSNHL impact a person’s emotional wellness?

For many, SSNHL has an impact on their emotional wellbeing.

  • Sue Hossack, Nottinghamshire, UK, suffered sudden one-sided hearing loss in 2018. She experienced “an initial complete loss of confidence, feelings of depression, isolation, sadness, and anger.”
  • Kathy Koch Callender, of Denver, Colorado, awoke one morning in 2021 without any hearing in her right ear, and describes the experience as “extremely frightening” and led to her “loss of independence.”
  • Chalese Felt, who’s in her thirties and lives in Utah, suddenly lost the hearing in her right ear in four years ago. She has “constant anxiety” about losing more hearing.

Research shows that directly after a traumatic event such as SSNHL, people may experience shock and denial which can gradually lead to other feelings such as sadness and anger. For most, those feelings of emotional distress generally improve with time. If they don’t, depression may be an issue, which can be alleviated with the help of a qualified therapist.

What kind of treatment and support is available for SSNHL?

Hearing aids and assistive devices can help those with SSNHL, as they do enhance the lives of those with gradual hearing loss. Counseling can help alleviate the emotional impact of experiencing this sudden condition.