Sudden hearing loss

Sudden hearing loss typically affects one ear only. Hearing often recovers again on its own, although permanent hearing damage is a possible outcome.

At a glance

  • Sudden hearing loss refers to a sudden difficulty that a person experiences with hearing – usually in one ear only (unilateral).
  • Sometimes, sudden hearing loss simply feels like a sensation of pressure or having “cotton wool” in the ear. The person may also experience ringing in the ears and dizziness.
  • Typically, a precise cause cannot be identified for the sudden hearing loss.
  • For many patients, their hearing improves again subsequently. However, there may be permanent damage to hearing in some cases.
  • There is no specific treatment to target the precise cause because this is unknown. Treatment with anti-inflammatory cortisone products is likely to improve the chances of recovery.
  • If an underlying health condition is identified as the cause, it should be treated where possible.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

A doctor examines a patient’s ear.

What is sudden hearing loss?

Hearing loss can sometimes occur suddenly. It usually affects one ear only and rarely affects both at the same time. It is often impossible to clearly determine the cause.

Sudden hearing loss usually affects one ear only.

Sudden hearing loss can affect hearing to varying degrees. The individual may even suffer complete deafness in the affected ear.

The hearing loss typically occurs suddenly, within just a few minutes or hours. The likelihood of the hearing loss being permanent is proportionate to the severity of the hearing loss suffered at the outset.

Many people temporarily suffer sudden hearing loss now and then. The symptoms recede spontaneously within a matter of seconds or minutes.

Medical advice should be sought if the hearing loss persists. People with acute hearing loss should immediately consult a specialist in ear, nose and throat medicine (ENT). Overall, the chances of recovery are good.

Important: Early diagnosis can reduce the risk of permanent hearing loss.

What are the symptoms of sudden hearing loss?

Sudden hearing loss typically affects one ear only. Some people discover, upon waking, that they can suddenly hear very little, if anything at all, in one of their ears. Both ears are affected in around 3 percent of cases of sudden hearing loss. The loss of hearing is often accompanied by ringing in the ears (tinnitus).

Other people with sudden hearing loss initially only experience the sensation of their ear being “blocked” or “full”, before realizing that their hearing has deteriorated. Other possible symptoms of sudden hearing loss include dizziness and sensory disturbances (numbness) in the outer ear.

What is tinnitus?

The video below explains what can trigger tinnitus and what symptoms can occur.

This and other videos can also be found on YouTube

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What causes sudden hearing loss?

In over 90 percent of people, the cause of sudden hearing loss originates in the inner ear. In this case, doctors refer to acute idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss or sudden hearing loss/sudden deafness.

In over 90 percent of people, the cause of sudden hearing loss originates in the inner ear.

It is suspected that inflammation or circulatory disturbances in the inner ear have a role to play. Auto-immune responses, in which antibodies affect the body’s own cells, may also be involved. To date, a link with stress has not been scientifically established.

In rare cases, certain causes of acute hearing loss can be identified.
These include:

  • tumors on the nerves responsible for balance and hearing, in the inner ear or in the brain
  • disturbances in the production of inner-ear fluids in the cochlea (cochlear hydrops) or in the entire inner ear (Menière’s disease)
  • various viral illnesses, such as flu, mumps and measles
  • autoimmune disorders, including systemic lupus erythematodes
  • hemorrhages (bleeding) in the inner ear
  • leaking of fluid from the inner ear
  • neurological disorders, such as multiple sclerosis
  • metabolic disorders such as diabetes mellitus
  • diseases of the blood vessels
  • side-effects of certain medication
  • head injuries
  • the effect of noise
  • barotrauma/decompression sickness (“ear squeeze”): tissue damage caused by a sharp rise or drop in pressure


What factors increase the risk of sudden hearing loss?

Only a small number of factors have been shown to increase the risk of sudden hearing loss. They are:

  • smoking
  • alcohol abuse
  • various hereditary changes that increase the risk of blood clots
  • some anti-inflammatory pain medication

How common is sudden hearing loss?

It is estimated that around 160 to 400 people out of every 100,000 people are affected by sudden hearing loss each year in Germany.

It is difficult to specify an exact figure because many people don’t seek medical advice when they experience sudden hearing loss if the symptoms recede on their own within a short period of time.

Sudden hearing loss can occur at any age. It is particularly likely to affect adults from the age of about 50 onwards. Men and women are affected more or less equally by sudden hearing loss, while it is rare in children.

How is sudden hearing loss diagnosed?

If sudden hearing loss is suspected, a specialist in ear, nose and throat (ENT) medicine will take the patient’s history and conduct hearing tests.

Next, the ENT specialist will examine the ear and ear canal using a special microscope in order to exclude other causes for the patient’s loss of hearing – for example, problems with the ear drum, middle ear or ear canal, or a buildup of earwax blocking the ear canal.

In addition, various tests are performed using a tuning fork held in front of the ear or on top of the head. This allows the doctor to distinguish between sensorineural (perceptive) hearing loss in the inner ear and conductive hearing loss in the middle or outer ear.

A pure tone audiogram is the only way to obtain an accurate, measurable result. This involves various high tones being played for the patient over headphones, with the volume gradually increasing. This allows doctors to pinpoint the volume threshold as of which the tones at a certain frequency are heard.

The ENT specialist can then conduct further tests to determine the extent and the location of the hearing damage. These include, for example, the measurement of brain stem potentials using an electroencephalogram (EEG).

If the patient is experiencing dizziness, the functioning of the vestibular system is usually also tested.

Additional testing can be undertaken if required – for example, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan or blood test.

An MRI, for example, can detect the presence of a tumor such as a vestibular schwannoma.

How is sudden hearing loss treated?

If the doctor identifies a specific trigger for the sudden hearing loss, this will be treated accordingly.

Often, however, a precise cause cannot be identified. In this case, treatment is administered on the basis of prior experience. None of the possible treatments available can reliably restore hearing to all people affected. For this reason, the patient and doctor must work together to decide on the best way to proceed.

The first course of action is usually to try using anti-inflammatory glucocorticoids such as cortisone. This medication can be taken alone or in combination with other drugs in tablet form, as an infusion into the veins or as a direct injection into the middle ear.

The form in which it is administered depends on:

  • the severity of the hearing loss
  • which sound frequencies are affected
  • whether and which underlying illnesses are present

If the hearing loss is mild and doesn’t affect the understanding of language when communicating with other people, then it’s also possible to allow the condition to run its course naturally without treatment.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is sometimes offered – possibly in combination with cortisone medication – in which the patient inhales pure oxygen inside a pressurized chamber. To date, however, there has been no clear evidence that this relieves or cures the symptoms.

What aftercare can be provided after sudden hearing loss?

It is useful to have a repeat hearing test approximately 2 to 3 months after the end of treatment, and again around 9 to 12 months after the end of treatment. Rehabilitation measures may be beneficial in individual cases.

If the hearing loss is permanent, a hearing aid may help and, if not, an auditory prosthesis (i.e., a cochlear implant) may be considered.

Tinnitus and dizziness often decrease in severity as soon as the patient’s hearing improves. However, they can persist in some cases and, if so, are also treated as part of rehabilitation.

Reviewed by the German Society of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology, Head and Neck Surgery (Gesellschaft für HNO-Heilkunde, Kopf- und Hals-Chirurgie e.V., DGHNO-KHC).

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