Explainer: understanding sudden onset hearing loss

Edinburgh hearing specialist Stephen Fairfield wants to know more about people affected by sudden onset hearing loss and promotes seeking urgent help when the condition strikes.

The evidence suggests that it must be dealt within 48 hours
The evidence suggests that it must be dealt within 48 hours

Unexplained and rapid loss of hearing can be due to a number of causes and requires urgent treatment. Now an independent group of audiologists is collecting data on the subject, including Fairfield Hearing’s Stephen Fairfield, one of Edinburgh’s leading hearing healthcare practitioners.

“Sudden onset hearing loss is an issue that we see far more regularly in our clinic these days,” explains Stephen, who set up the independent hearing healthcare business at two Edinburgh clinics with his sister Ruth Porteous.

“Sometimes it’s just things like wax or fluid from a respiratory tract infection behind the eardrum which can be resolved, but sometimes it is a loss of hearing at the nerve itself.

People who have this problem often think it will just go away, but even if they do make an appointment to see their GP, they might not do so for several days and then the appointment might not be available for several more days.

“However, the evidence suggests that it must be dealt within 48 hours, primarily by administering steroids, or the condition may be irreversible.”

Seek help

Stephen wants to hear from Scotsman readers who have experienced sudden onset hearing loss as part of the ongoing research.

According to the British Irish Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association (BIHIMA), sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNHL) – to give it its proper name – is defined as a sudden or rapid loss of hearing, which occurs all at once or within 72 hours.

Every year, one person in 5,000 is affected: some people wake up with the loss, often with a sensation of ear pressure or fullness. Others notice a ‘pop’ before their hearing drops. People with the condition often experience dizziness, vertigo, or tinnitus at the time of the loss.

“The actual number of new cases could be even higher as it often goes undiagnosed, as some people recover quickly and never seek medical help,” adds Stephen.

With the causes yet to be fully understood, ranging from viral infections to trauma, some people will regain all or partial hearing, and others will have no recovery.

According to the association, SSNHL “is a serious medical condition and should be treated as an emergency, requiring prompt medical attention. Steroid treatment within 24-48 hours of onset is believed to be the most effective and acting quickly is crucial.

“The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends that adults with sudden onset or rapid worsening of hearing loss in one or both ears are referred immediately (to be seen within 24 hours) to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) service or an emergency department.

“Delaying SSNHL diagnosis and treatment could decrease the chance of hearing recovery.”

However few people seek treatment within the necessary timeframe which could have dangerous consequences. BIHIMA created a survey at the end of 2021 to understand the current treatment path for SSNHL patients, in which more than 40 per cent of audiologists reporting that only around 5 per cent of patients with SSNHL are seen within 48 hours of onset.

Yet it’s the best place to start to seek help – nearly seven out of 10 audiologists had a triage system, meaning they have a system in place to enable them to give urgent attention to patients who have potentially experienced SSNHL.

The good news is that 85% of those who receive prompt treatment from an ENT service will recover some of their hearing – making it vital that you seek help if you are affected.

Get in touch

If you have been affected by sudden hearing loss, either now or in the past, please contact Stephen Fairfield at Fairfield Hearing at 2 Stafford Street, Edinburgh EH3 7AU. You can call 0131 378 5800 or email [email protected]