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Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), commonly known as sudden deafness, occurs as an unexplained, rapid loss of hearing—usually in one ear—either at once or over several days. It should be considered a medical emergency. Anyone who experiences SSHL should visit a doctor immediately. Sometimes, people with SSHL put off seeing a doctor because they think their hearing loss is due to allergies, a sinus infection, earwax plugging the ear canal, or other common conditions. However, delaying SHHL diagnosis and treatment may decrease the effectiveness of treatment.
Nine out of ten people with SSHL lose hearing in only one ear. SSHL is diagnosed by conducting a hearing test. If the test shows a loss of at least 30 decibels (decibels are a measure of sound) in three connected frequencies (frequency is a measure of pitch—high to low), the hearing loss is diagnosed as SSHL. As an example, a hearing loss of 30 decibels would make conversational speech sound more like a whisper.
Many people notice that they have SSHL when they wake up in the morning. Others first notice it when they try to use the deafened ear, such as when they use a phone. Still others notice a loud, alarming "pop" just before their hearing disappears. People with sudden deafness often become dizzy, have ringing in their ears (tinnitus), or both.
About half of people with SSHL will recover some or all of their hearing spontaneously, usually within one to two weeks from onset. Eighty-five percent of those who receive treatment from an otolaryngologist (a doctor, sometimes called an ENT, who specializes in diseases of the ears, nose, throat, and neck) will recover some of their hearing.
Experts estimate that SSHL strikes one person per 5,000 every year, typically adults in their 40s and 50s. The actual number of new cases of SSHL each year could be much higher because the condition often goes undiagnosed. Many people recover quickly and never seek medical help.