This factsheet is part of our Ears and ear problems range. It is written for people who have suddenly lost their hearing, or their friends and family.
Read this factsheet to find out:
- What is sudden hearing loss?
- What do I do if I lose my hearing suddenly?
- What can cause sudden hearing loss?
- Can sudden hearing loss be accompanied by tinnitus?
- Can sudden hearing loss be accompanied by balance problems?
- How do I come to terms with a sudden hearing loss?
- What else can help?
- Where can I get further information?
What is sudden hearing loss?
Sudden hearing loss can be either a conductive hearing loss or a sensorineural hearing loss, depending on which parts of the ear are affected. It may affect one or both ears. It can happen instantly or (despite the word “sudden”) over the course of a few weeks. Your hearing may recover, but it may not, and you may be left with permanent hearing loss.
Recovery will depend on the cause and severity of the problem (see ‘What can cause sudden hearing loss?’ below). You must seek urgent help if you think you have sudden hearing loss.
What do I do if I lose my hearing suddenly?
If you think you have sudden hearing loss in one or both ears, contact us as soon as possible. Unless the problem is just a blockage caused by a wax build-up, which can be readily removed.
If you cannot see your GP and have severe sudden hearing loss, you should go to your nearest accident and emergency department. It is very likely that the hospital will have an ENT department. An ENT specialist should carry out detailed tests to assess the degree and type of hearing loss you may have. You may need to stay in hospital for appropriate treatment or you may be treated as an outpatient.
What can cause sudden hearing loss?
- ototoxic drugs
- acoustic neuromas
- Ménière’s disease.
Wax can build up in your ear canal and cause hearing loss. A normal amount of wax is perfectly healthy and helps keep your ears clean. However, some people produce more wax than others and it can build up in your ear canal. This may also happen if you use cotton buds, which can push the wax further into your ear where it cannot come out on its own.
Although the wax may have been building up for quite some time, you can experience a quite sudden loss of hearing at the point when the wax blocks your ear canal completely. You should visit your GP who will be able to advise you on the best course of action. If you do have a build-up of wax, you will probably need to have the wax removed. Once the wax is removed, your hearing should return to normal. For more information, you may find our factsheet Ear syringing helpful.
You can get infections and inflammation in different parts of your ear, which will cause different symptoms. You may have an ear infection in your outer or middle ear. Infections that cause inflammation in the middle ear are reasonably common, especially in children. These can cause hearing loss that is usually temporary.
However, you can also get infections in your inner ear, such as labyrinthitis. Labyrinthitis usually only affects one ear. It may affect your hearing and can also make you feel dizzy and can cause tinnitus (see page 6). The symptoms of labyrinthitis are quite likely to go away as the infection gets better.
Meningitis (especially the type caused by bacteria), measles or mumps can sometimes affect the inner ear and cause sudden permanent hearing loss. In the case of mumps, this is usually on one side only. If you are pregnant and have rubella (German measles), then your baby may lose their hearing permanently. But when children or adults get rubella, it doesn’t usually affect their hearing.
If caught in time, most infections can be treated and hearing usually recovers. But in the case of meningitis, measles, mumps and rubella, permanent deafness is one of several serious effects that can sometimes follow. So it is important for children to be immunised against measles, mumps and rubella. Meningitis immunisation is sometimes made available to people at risk when there is a local outbreak.
If you have a head injury, it can directly affect the inner ear or the structures in the middle ear and can cause hearing loss. The extent of the problem depends on the seriousness of the head injury. In addition, loud blasts can cause damage to the middle ear structures, and can also damage the inner ear. Sudden large changes in air pressure can also affect your hearing, but this is quite rare. If you have any ear surgery, there may be risks to your hearing. You should discuss any risks with your doctor before the operation.
Hearing loss from trauma can be temporary or permanent, depending on the extent of the damage to your ear.
Ototoxic drugs are drugs that may cause damage to the inner ear, resulting in hearing loss. There may be a risk to your hearing when these drugs are given in very large doses or when very strong drugs need to be used – for example, to treat cancer. Ototoxic drugs can affect both ears and can cause mild to profound hearing loss. The hearing loss can be temporary or permanent and will depend on the type of drug, the dosage and how the drug is taken. If your doctor prescribes ototoxic drugs, they should discuss with you how they might affect your hearing. For more information, see our factsheet Drugs and hearing loss.
An acoustic neuroma is a rare benign growth – it is not malignant or cancerous – on the hearing and balance nerves that can affect hearing. It may even cause sudden permanent sensorineural hearing loss, balance problems and tinnitus. If you need surgery to remove an acoustic neuroma, there is a high risk that you may lose your hearing completely on the affected side. For more information, see our factsheet Acoustic neuroma.
If you have Ménière’s disease you will experience changing bouts of pressure in one ear with low-tone sensorineural hearing loss, tinnitus and long bouts of dizziness. Your sudden hearing loss may improve in the short-term, but can recur with further bouts of Ménière’s disease. For more information, see our factsheet on Ménière’s disease.
Can sudden hearing loss be accompanied by tinnitus?
Yes. Tinnitus is the word for noises that some people hear in the ears or in the head, such as buzzing, ringing, whistling, hissing and other sounds. You should be able to receive advice and information about managing tinnitus from your audiology service, ENT specialist or tinnitus clinic. See our range of tinnitus materials for more information.
Can sudden hearing loss be accompanied by balance problems?
Yes. Your GP or specialist will be able to discuss treatment and how to cope with balance problems. Our factsheet Dizziness and balance problems can tell you more.
How do I come to terms with sudden hearing loss?
Losing your hearing suddenly can be a traumatic experience, particularly if the loss is severe and you also have tinnitus or balance problems. Hearing loss can leave you with a very different experience of the world, which can be bewildering and frightening.
The previous section about possible causes of sudden hearing loss explains how your hearing may recover in some cases. But if it does not, you will need time to come to terms with the change. You will also need help from professionals, friends, family, work colleagues and perhaps groups of people who have gone through a similar experience.
How you feel about your hearing loss will change over time. If it is due to a sudden and temporary acute illness or injury, it may be a while before you feel the full impact of the loss.
Some common feelings about losing your hearing permanently
When you first lose your hearing, you might find it quite difficult to come to terms with the fact that the loss is permanent. This is a normal reaction to a sudden loss of any kind. You might find yourself thinking that it is impossible for your hearing to disappear as quickly as it has done and you may believe that it will come back. You might also think that medical science will be able to restore your hearing and find it difficult to accept that doctors can give you only a limited amount of help.
As you recover from the physical effects of the original illness or injury, you will probably return to the routines you had before you lost your hearing. You might be fitted with hearing aids and will start to develop skills to help you cope with your deafness. This will help you feel more in control again. However, this may also be the time when you experience the full emotional impact of your hearing loss and begin to realise that your hearing will not get better.
You might feel very angry towards yourself, doctors, or others who you may feel have somehow caused your hearing loss. You may also feel very isolated because other people cannot see your deafness, tinnitus or balance problem and may seem to be ignoring it. They may misunderstand your problem, or even think you do not have one at all.
What you and others can do to help
You might find that when you tell people you are deafened, they are awkward and embarrassed. However, if you are not open with people you may be left feeling even more isolated. You will be helping yourself and others if you describe your hearing loss to them and explain what you need them to do. Don’t feel embarrassed if you don’t hear someone properly. Remember, you do not need to keep apologising for your deafness. It is up to everyone in a conversation to communicate clearly.
With the right sort of professional support, and with time, you should find that you become more skilled at being aware of your environment, communicating and helping others to communicate well with you. As your skills grow, you will feel more in control and more like your old self. You will probably find that you are able to adapt the way you do things so that you can continue to enjoy your leisure interests and social life.
If you have lost your hearing and are already working, or if you are looking for work, you can get a lot of support. Contact our helpline for details about our employment advice service, which can support you into training and job placements as well as employment.
At work, your employer has a duty under the Equality Act to make adjustments and provide equipment and support to help you work to your full potential.
Involving your family and friends
If your partner, relative or a close friend can go with you on your visits to your ENT specialist or audiologist, they can learn about ways they can make communication easier for you. If your family and close friends don’t ask you about your deafness and treat you as they did before you lost your hearing, it does not mean they don’t care. It is very common for people to react in this way. They may be bewildered by your deafness and think that the best way to help you is to treat you as if nothing has changed.
Our factsheet Living with someone who has gradual hearing loss also applies in many ways to sudden deafness, as it has lots of tips to help your partner, relative or close friends understand what it means to have hearing loss.
WHAT ELSE CAN HELP?
If your hearing loss does not improve you may be offered hearing aids. Sometimes with a sudden hearing loss your hearing may gradually be restored. If this does not improve within 9 months then it is unlikely to improve after. If you are interested in hearing aids then contact us where we can walk you through the various options that are available.
You can get a range of equipment to help you in your home, in the car, at work and when you are out and about. For example, if you have difficulty hearing an alarm clock, telephone or doorbell ringing, you can get equipment that has been designed or adapted for people with hearing loss. Amplified telephones are available or you may wish to try a textphone.