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Understanding sudden hearing loss

When it’s suddenly hard to hear, it can be scary. But we’re here to help guide you on your road to recovery. Learn what causes sudden hearing loss, how it can be identified and the steps you can take to start hearing better today.
What is sudden hearing loss?

When the sound suddenly stops

While hearing loss often occurs over time or following a specific trauma, it’s also possible to experience a sudden loss in your ability to hear. As the name indicates, it comes on suddenly and generally without explanation. If there is no object of blockage causing the hearing loss, this sudden loss of hearing is known as sensorineural sudden hearing loss (SSHL).

Sudden hearing loss is often treatable and the sooner you address the issue, the better your chances are of regaining some or all of your hearing abilities.

If you experience an unexplained, rapid loss in hearing, it should be treated as a medical emergency and you should contact your doctor immediately. 

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Getting to the root of the problem

The cause of sudden hearing loss often remains unsolved. Sometimes it can be caused by a simple case of earwax build-up. In this case, a Hearing Care Professional can remove the wax and your hearing should be restored. A viral or bacterial infection may also be the culprit.

Other causes of sudden hearing loss can include:

  • Inner ear disorders, such as Ménière’s disease

  • The use of ototoxic drugs

  • Autoimmune diseases

  • Head trauma

  • Vascular disorders

  • Tumor on the auditory nerve
Signs and symptoms

Recognizing sudden hearing loss

A sudden loss of hearing over a period of less than 72 hours can indicate a sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL) or sudden deafness. You may notice this change in hearing right when you wake up or when you specifically try to use the affected ear.

In addition to the sudden inability to hear, sudden hearing loss may also be accompanied by other symptoms. A sudden popping sound before your hearing decreases, a feeling of fullness in the affected ear, ringing in the ear or dizziness are also tell-tale signs.

In many cases, SSHL is unilateral, meaning it affects only one ear. To diagnose a sudden hearing loss, a thorough hearing test should be conducted. Your Hearing Care Professional will also examine your ear to rule out a physical blockage, such as a build-up of earwax, inflammation or fluid build-up.

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Sudden hearing loss audiogram

Decoding your hearing test results

An audiogram for SSHL typically shows a pattern of hearing loss that’s greater in higher frequencies. The degree and configuration can also vary depending the underlying cause. The audiogram may show a sloping or sharply downward-sloping pattern in which the hearing threshold is worse in the high frequencies and ability to hear speech is reduced. In some cases, the audiogram may appear normal or only show mild hearing loss.

While an audiogram alone may not be sufficient to diagnose SSHL and additional screenings may be necessary, it can provide valuable information about the type, degree, and configuration of the sudden hearing loss, and help guide treatment options and management strategies. The audiogram below demonstrates one variation of SSHL. The left ear is shown in blue with the X while the red line and O represent the right ear.

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More about audiograms
Sudden hearing loss right ear audiogram

Simple steps to save your ears

Sudden hearing loss can be a frightening and unsettling experience, but there are steps you can take to prevent some cases. Two of the main causes of sudden hearing loss - inner ear damage and circulation problems - can be prevented by:

  • Avoiding loud noise
    It’s important to protect your ears from hazardous levels of sound. This can include wearing earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones in noisy environments, avoiding loud concerts and music, and using sound-dampening techniques at work or when using power tools.

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle
    Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and avoiding harmful substances, such as tobacco and alcohol, can help reduce circulation problems. Regular check-ups can also help detect circulation issues before they cause hearing loss.
Ear muffs

Addressing sudden hearing loss

The majority of SSHL causes are often unknown, making treatment difficult. In these cases, corticosteroids are generally prescribed to reduce inflammation and target illnesses. If an infection is identified, antivirals or antibiotics can help to address the issue.

Your Hearing Care Professional or doctor may also recommend switching or stopping particular medication that may be causing your SSHL. Because causes of sudden hearing loss can vary, the specific course of action is a very personalized process.
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Did you know?

High altitude

Sudden hearing loss can be caused by a change in altitude. This is because changes in atmospheric pressure can affect the pressure in the inner ear, leading to sudden hearing loss in some people. So, if you're a frequent flier or love to take trips to high-altitude destinations, keep this in mind!
Expert advice

Rest and relaxation

Research has shown that stress and anxiety can contribute to sudden hearing loss and, by reducing stress levels, you may be able to alleviate symptoms and prevent future occurrences. Try practicing stress-reducing activities, such as yoga, meditation or deep breathing. 


What causes sudden hearing loss?

How long does sudden hearing loss last?

How do you treat sudden hearing loss?

Is sudden hearing loss an emergency?

Can sudden hearing loss return?

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