The causes of sudden hearing loss in one ear are varied. Anyone with sudden hearing loss in one ear or both ears should treat it as a medical emergency and immediately see a doctor. This is because sudden hearing loss could be a warning sign of potentially underlying conditions.
This article is not intended to offer a medical opinion on the subject of the causes of sudden hearing loss, but rather, to provide information.
This quick 101 summarizes a review of the plethora of some currently available information (83 documents) cross-referenced to articles from major contemporary medical organizations listed in the reference section below.
Interruptions in the Pathways of Sound Resulting in Hearing Loss
Sound received by your ear can be interrupted in three ways, with any of these potentially resulting in some form of hearing loss. While the scientific terms for these interruptions appear complicated, they can be easily explained.
- Conductive – The incoming sound is blocked from reaching the sensory structures for hearing in the inner ear.
- Sensorineural – The incoming sound does reach the inner ear, but for some reason or the other, it cannot be converted into nerve impulses and carried to the brain.
- Mixed – This involves possible combinations of both conductive and sensorineural pathways described above.
What Are the General Causes of Hearing Loss?
The commonest causes of hearing loss are accumulation of earwax, noise, age-related, and ear infections.
Noise louder than 85 decibels(dB) can cause hearing loss if exposure continues over a period of time (NIDCD 2018, Merck Manuals 2020). A previous article provides details ( The Best Hearing Aids for Seniors. Degrees of Hearing Loss)
The most treatable cause of hearing loss especially among older people is the accumulation of earwax in the ear passage. Ear infections are generally more common in children.
Hearing loss caused by noise may be gradual or sudden. When it is due to extreme noise exposure, it is referred to as acoustic trauma. This usually disappears within a day, unless there is damage to the eardrum, middle ear or inner ear or, it could result in ringing in the ears (tinnitus).
Aging, along with noise exposure (age-related cause) and genetic factors will limit your ability to hear the higher frequencies of sound more than the lower frequencies.
Other Causes: Additional less common causes of hearing loss are- injuries, tumors, autoimmune disorders, congenital disorders and drugs which can damage the ear (ototoxic drugs).
As always, we will begin with brief explanations of some terms you will encounter in this article:
Ringing in the ears usually caused by damage to the tiny sensory hairs in the inner ear.
Sudden Sensorineural Hearing loss (SSHL)
This is an unexplained, rapid loss of hearing, usually in one ear, either at once or over several days (Hearing Loss Association of America – HLAA 2017).
People with SSHL often discover the hearing loss upon waking in the morning. This can be quite disconcerting!
Other people affected may first notice it when they try to use the deafened ear as in use of the phone (NIDCD 2018).
SSHL occurs because there is something wrong with the sensory organs of the inner ear.
SSHL can affect people of all ages, although it tends to occur mainly in those between the ages of 50 and 60s. In the United States there are about 66,000 new cases of SSHL per year (Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, August 2019 cited by the Harvard Medical School Health Publishing).
This number may be a low estimate since the condition tends to be under diagnosed because it is not viewed as a serious problem and medical care is usually not sought because of the belief it could be due to allergies, sinus infection or earwax blockage.
Most publications reviewed were of the opinion that such delays increase the risk of permanent hearing loss.
A false sensation of spinning or moving is a truly disconcerting experience. Your head feels light and you think you are about to fall down. Sitting down and closing your eyes for a few minutes is helpful.
Hearing Loss on One Side
Also called Single Sided Deafness (SSD) or Unilateral hearing loss (UHL) is a type of hearing impairment where there is normal hearing in one ear and impaired hearing in the other ear.
Do We Know What Causes Sudden Hearing Loss?
Sudden hearing loss is moderate to severe hearing loss that develops over a few hours, or is noticed on awakening ( Merck Manuals March 2020).
Such hearing loss typically affects only one ear unless caused by drug use. Depending on the cause of sudden hearing loss, people may have other symptoms such as tinnitus, or vertigo. It is estimated that about 1 in 5,000 to 1 in 10,000 people each year develop sudden hearing loss.
Causes of Sudden Hearing Loss
There are 3 broad categories of causes of sudden hearing loss.
Only 10 % of people diagnosed with SSHL have an identifiable (NIDCD). Some just wake up to it. No cause can be found for most, although doctors have several theories. These include viral infections, autoimmune reaction or blockage of the small blood vessels of the inner ear or its nerves
A Defined and Obvious Event
There are generally four types of these events
- Head injury
- Severe pressure changes which may occur with diving. It can occur less often by bearing down during weight lifting causing a hole to form between the middle and inner ear.
- Use of drugs that have damaging side effects to the ears.
- Infections during or immediately after acute illness.
An Underlying Disorder
These include tumor of the auditory nerve (acoustic neuroma), neurological disorders (multiple sclerosis), disorders of the inner ear (Meniere disease) or blood circulation problems such as blockage of a branch of the artery that goes to the center of the brain that manages balance.
What Should I Do?
You must treat ANY indication of sudden hearing loss as a medical emergency and seek medical care IMMEDIATELY. Why? There is usually only a very brief window to seek treatment before permanent damage is done.
Do not try to self medicate with cold or sinus medicine, cleaning your ears or using swimmer’s ear drops as these could worsen the situation. It is better to be safe than sorry!
Only A Doctor Can Recommend Treatment
Only a doctor can recommend treatment for sudden hearing loss after conducting several diagnostic tests.
Many doctors doctors may prescribe oral cortisone steroids. While these have been found to be helpful for some cases of sudden hearing loss, it is not a blanket remedy.
Only a thorough examination will identify the appropriate treatment to be administered on a case-by-case basis.
Have you or anyone you know experienced sudden hearing loss before? What type was it? Share your experience in the comment box below.
1. Sudden Deafness NIDCD Hearing and Balance (2018): https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/sudden-deafness
2. Sudden Deafness (2017). HLAA. https://www.hearingloss.org/hearing-help/hearing-loss-basics/sudden-deafness/
3. Hearing Loss – Symptoms and Causes (2019). Mayo Clinic.
4. Lawrence R. Lustig (March 2020). Hearing Loss. Merck Manuals.https://www.merckmanuals.com/en-ca/home/ear,-nose,-and-throat-disorders/hearing-loss-and-deafness/hearing-loss
5. Now hear this: Don’t ignore sudden hearing loss (Dec 2019). Harvard Medical Health Publishing.
6. Lawrence R. Lustig (March 2020). Sudden Hearing Loss. Merck Manuals https://www.merckmanuals.com/en-ca/home/ear,-nose,-and-throat-disorders/hearing-loss-and-deafness/sudden-hearing-loss