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Sudden hearing loss is a scary thought. Imagine waking up one day and not being able to hear! Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNHL), also known as sudden deafness, affects about one in every 5,000 adults every year (although it may be more because cases often go unreported and undiagnosed). How does it happen and when should you worry about it?

I woke up without hearing: What do I do?

Sudden hearing loss is a medical emergency. If you wake up without hearing loss (one of the most common experiences of SSNHL), contact your doctor immediately. Sometimes, you might feel a “popping” sensation, or a feeling of uncomfortable fullness in your ear. Ringing in the ear might also happen. Sudden hearing loss often occurs in just one ear.

In some cases, “sudden” hearing loss is more gradual than just waking up without hearing. It could be a more gradual loss of hearing, occurring over minutes or even hours. If you feel that your hearing is declining over the course of a day, it’s important to get medical help immediately.

If you’re experiencing sudden hearing loss:

  1. Call your audiologist
  2. If you don’t have an audiologist, call your general physician
  3. Go to an urgent care or emergency department

Sudden hearing loss treatment

Time is of the essence with sudden hearing loss. You only have a 10-14 day period to treat sudden hearing loss—if it goes too long without treatment it could be permanent.

SSNHL is treated with corticosteroids, either injections of a pill. It’s vital that you seek treatment as soon as you notice your hearing has vanished. The good news: 85% of patients who receive prompt medical treatment regain some or all of their hearing back.

If you are left with permanent hearing loss after a bout of SSNHL, the best treatment is hearing aids. You can just use one hearing aid if the hearing loss is restricted to just one ear.

How does sudden hearing loss happen?

It’s still not known what causes SSNHL. Experts posit that viral infections, immune system problems, blocked blood flow to the ear, or inflammation in the ear could all cause the onset of sudden hearing loss. Only about 10% of people diagnosed with SSNHL actually have an identifiable cause. Sudden hearing loss can happen at any age, but it seems to affect people between their 40s and 60s most often.

You may also notice that you’re experiencing balance problems. Sudden hearing loss can affect your balance, which can in turn increase your risk of falling. In some cases, sudden hearing loss may be the result of a small stroke or an auditory tumor—another reason why seeking medical treatment is imperative.

By: Elena McPhillips