Everyone’s hearing naturally declines with age, and people often have one ear that hears better than the other. But if hearing loss appears suddenly in one ear for no apparent reason, you may have experienced sudden sensorineural hearing loss, or SHL, a kind of nerve deafness.
It is getting more common because people don’t view it as a serious problem and don’t get the medical care they need. This delay increases the risk of permanent hearing loss.
It is not known what causes SHL, but experts point to several possible reasons: a viral infection, an immune system malfunction, an inflammatory injury to the ear, or blocked blood flow to the ear — or even some combination of these.
SHL can affect people of all ages, although it tends to occur most in the 50s and 60s. It usually strikes one ear. You may hear a “pop” or feel like your ear is clogged. Hearing often does not go away all at once, either, It is a gradual decline over several minutes or even hours, like air leaking from a tire.”
Besides hearing problems, SHL can affect body balance, which increases risk of falls. It also sometimes signifies a small stoke or tumor. SHL gets ignored because the symptoms feel familiar, like a head cold or earwax or water in the ear. People try to treat it with cold or sinus medicine, swimmer’s ear drops, or cleaning their ears. “They think it’s just an annoying stuffy ear that will go away, so they put it on the back burner until it’s too late,” says Dr. Rauch.
Home test for SHL
How can you know the difference between a regular stuffy ear and sudden hearing loss? Try this test:
Hum aloud to yourself. With normal hearing, you hear the sound equally in both ears. If you do this when you have a new loss of hearing in one ear, the humming will shift to one side or the other.
For example, if your right ear is affected and the hum is louder in that ear, then the hearing loss is more likely a conductive loss, and probably due to blockage from a cold or built-up ear wax. (You can simulate this effect by humming while you cover your right ear.)
However, if the humming is louder in the left ear, it suggests the right ear hearing loss is due to recent nerve damage, and that requires prompt medical attention.
But time is of the essence to save your hearing. “You have about a 10- to 14-day window to treat SHL; otherwise the hearing loss becomes permanent,” says Dr. Rauch. So doctor should be seen, or get a referral to visit an ear, nose, and throat specialist if your hearing goes away for longer than a day.
HL is treated with corticosteroids over a two- to three-week period. The drugs can be taken orally or via an injection through the eardrum. Corticosteroid pills, are taken at the same dose every day for 14 days, and then the dose tapers off for the final week. Alternatively, ear injections are given twice a week for two weeks.
Oral steroids are more comfortable to take but can have side effects like an upset stomach, higher blood pressure, mood swings, and insomnia. Injections generally have no systemic side effects, but they can be uncomfortable, and people have to visit their doctor to get them. Some doctors recommend both oral and injected steroids in hopes of increasing the recovery rate.