Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL) is an unexplained rapid loss of hearing, usually in one ear, that can occur suddenly or over several days. Many notice the loss of hearing when they wake up in the morning, or when they attempt to use the phone and can’t hear out of one ear. Some hear a frightening “pop” before their hearing stops. People with the condition often report dizziness, ringing in the ears or both.

“Often, patients will put off seeing a doctor because they think their hearing loss is something simple, like allergies, sinus infection, ear wax or other common condition,” said Mike Telisak, MD, FACS, otolaryngologist at Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa. “Sudden hearing loss is very serious and needs to be treated immediately.”

Sudden hearing loss should be considered a medical emergency. Delaying diagnosis and treatment, even by just a few days, can decrease the effectiveness of treatment. “In most cases, the condition becomes permanent. However, a majority of patients who receive treatment from an otolaryngologist will recover at least some of their hearing,” Dr. Telisak said.

Frequently, sudden hearing loss has no definite cause. However, a serious complication such as a tumor, untreated infection or autoimmune disorder could be the root of the problem, which is why it's important for patients to see a specialist immediately.

The condition is commonly treated with corticosteroids when no underlying cause can be found. These steroids help decrease swelling, reduce inflammation and help the body fight illness. The steroids can be taken orally or injected into the middle ear space to perfuse through the round window membrane.