In sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), hearing loss occurs instantly or over several days. It can range in severity and be temporary or permanent.

Some people may use the term “ear stroke” to refer to sudden hearing loss, but medical professionals use the term “sudden sensorineural hearing loss,” or SSHL.

Most cases of SSHL occur without a known cause. However, it sometimes develops due to an underlying medical condition. In either case, urgent treatment is necessary to prevent permanent hearing loss in the affected ear.

This article outlines the symptoms and causes of SSHL and offers advice on when to visit a doctor. It also provides information on diagnosis, treatment, and outlook, and considers the link between SSHL and stroke. Finally, the article discusses how to find support and communicate after SSHL.

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According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), SSHL is unexplained, rapid hearing loss occurring instantly or over several days.

Many people with SSHL become aware of the hearing loss upon waking up. Others may only notice it when trying to use the affected ear. Sometimes, a person may hear a loud “pop” before the hearing loss occurs.

SSHL typically affects only one ear. Alongside hearing loss, other symptoms can include:

SSHL occurs due to an issue with the sensory organs of the inner ear.

Some conditions that can cause or contribute to SSHL include:

According to the NIDCD, around 90% of SSHL cases are idiopathic, meaning they occur without a known cause.

When to seek medical help

SSHL is a medical emergency requiring urgent treatment.

Without appropriate treatment, SSHL may lead to permanent hearing loss. For this reason, a person should go to the emergency department or urgent care as soon as they develop symptoms of SSHL.

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When diagnosing SSHL, doctors first examine the ear to rule out an obstruction, such as from earwax or fluid.

If the ear is clear of obstruction, the doctor will perform a pure tone audiometry test to identify sensorineural hearing loss. The test involves presenting different frequencies of sound at varying degrees of loudness and assessing how loud each frequency needs to be before a person can hear it.

If a doctor diagnoses SSHL, they may order additional tests to help determine the cause. Examples include:

According to the NIDCD, corticosteroids are the standard treatment for SSHL, especially when the cause is unknown. These medications help reduce inflammation and swelling, which may help restore hearing.

Doctors may prescribe oral corticosteroids for a person to take, or doctors may inject corticosteroids into the person’s middle ear. Injecting the corticosteroid into the middle ear allows the medication to flow into the inner ear, where it can work directly.

The NIDCD recommends starting corticosteroid medication as soon as possible, noting that delaying treatment for more than 2–4 weeks may result in permanent hearing loss.

People who develop SSHL as a result of an underlying condition may require additional treatments for that condition.

People who develop SSHL from taking a certain medication may need to switch medications but should only do so with their doctor’s permission.

If hearing loss is severe or does not respond to treatment, a doctor may recommend hearing aids or cochlear implants to improve hearing.

A 2023 study notes that SSHL can be an early symptom of ischemic stroke. The American Stroke Association explains that ischemic strokes occur as a result of a blockage within a blood vessel.

In the study, researchers investigated factors associated with stroke-induced SSHL. They retrospectively investigated two sets of medical records: those from individuals with SSHL who went on to develop sudden ischemic stroke during their hospital stay and those with SSHL who did not develop sudden ischemic stroke.

Researchers then compared SSHL symptoms between the two groups.

According to the study results, the following factors were associated with an increased likelihood of sudden ischemic stroke following the onset of SSHL:

  • SSHL in both ears
  • moderately severe to total hearing loss
  • narrowing or blockage of an artery within the brain
  • three or more of the following risk factors for stroke:
    • a prior history of stroke
    • high blood pressure
    • diabetes
    • dyslipidemia, which is an imbalance of lipids in the blood
    • a history of smoking, defined as smoking at least one cigarette per day for more than 6 months
    • a history of alcohol consumption, defined as drinking more than 100 milliliters (mL) of liquor more than three times per week

Learn what to do if someone has a stroke.

Hearing loss can be very distressing, especially if it comes on suddenly or without an identifiable cause.

Coping with hearing loss day to day can be exhausting and discourage a person from engaging in social interactions. This may lead to social withdrawal, isolation, and poor mental health.

The American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASLHA) lists hearing loss organizations and associations where people with hearing loss can seek practical and emotional support.

Among these is the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), which provides educational resources on adjusting to living with hearing loss.

In terms of financial support, the HLAA recommends that people first check whether their health insurance covers hearing assistive technologies or other rehabilitative services. In some U.S. states, low income households may qualify for hearing aids through Medicaid.

Hearing loss can significantly affect a person’s ability to communicate. Sudden hearing loss can be especially challenging since it does not give the person time to adapt to changes in their hearing and communication.

A person should try to stay as involved in communication as possible, even if they experience difficulties at first.

People may benefit from downloading a speech-to-text app on a smartphone. These apps convert spoken language into readable text. To use the app, the person with hearing loss can hand their phone to the speaker and ask them to tap the microphone and speak into the mouthpiece.

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), a U.K.-based nonprofit, also provides general communication tips for people with hearing loss. These include:

  • making others aware of the hearing loss
  • asking people to talk face-to-face, if possible, to assist with lipreading
  • asking people to speak clearly and to say things differently, if necessary
  • communicating in quieter spaces whenever possible to help remove background noise
  • writing things down using pen and paper

Learn more about deafness and hearing loss.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) explains that some cases of SSHL result in permanent hearing loss. In such cases, people must try to preserve their remaining hearing in both ears by limiting their exposure to loud noises.

The NHS adds that a hearing aid may be necessary to assist hearing if hearing loss does not recover spontaneously or following treatment.

Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL) is the medical term for hearing loss that develops instantly or over several days. It occurs due to a problem in the inner ear. Most cases have an unknown cause, while some result from an underlying medical condition.

Aside from hearing loss, a person with SSHL may notice other symptoms, such as a feeling of fullness in the ear, tinnitus, or dizziness. Anyone experiencing symptoms of SSHL should seek immediate medical treatment. Delaying treatment increases the risk of permanent hearing loss.

Corticosteroids are the standard treatment for SSHL. Many people regain their hearing following treatment. However, some people have permanent hearing loss and may require hearing aids to help them day to day.

People concerned about hearing loss can talk with their doctor for additional advice and support.