Something weird happened to me just over a week ago: I experienced sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNHL). I’ve just about fully recovered now, but it was quite scary and very different to what I thought it was going to be like.
It started on Monday 20th February. I had just taken a shower and my ear felt strange, quite similar to the pressure from an airplane flight or some kind of blockage. I felt a bit dizzy but it didn’t really bother me. I could still hear fine, or so it seemed; I didn’t think it was serious. Then the next day, I woke up completely fine. Whatever the problem was seemed to have resolved itself and I felt normal. Then the next day… my ear felt blocked again.
At that point, I just thought that I’d be able to sleep it off (again) or I’d go to the doctors to clear out my ear and everything would be OK. It didn’t cross my mind that I had actual hearing loss, because I wasn’t having any difficulty hearing people talk or anything like that. However, on Thursday I started getting ringing in my ear and I decided to get an appointment at the doctor the next day. I told them I thought my right ear was blocked, they cleaned it and I felt better… but my hearing didn’t come back to normal. I started to get a bit worried because I wasn’t expecting that, so I went to my regular GP the same day with the intention of getting a referral to an ENT specialist. My GP gave me a hearing test and I was a bit shocked to discover that I couldn’t hear anything at all from my right ear. It sounds weird, but it was only then that I realised I had hearing loss! My GP said it was very unusual and got me the referral.
After getting back home, I did an online hearing test myself and found that I had severe hearing loss at low frequencies, returning to normal at medium to high frequencies. The specialist I was referred to couldn’t fit me in until the following Wednesday (it was Friday), but I was getting concerned so I started looking for alternatives online. I read that this kind of hearing loss is considered a medical emergency, and that treatment should ideally start within 48 hours of symptoms. Since it had already been 4 days since my symptoms started, it struck me that I could be facing permanent hearing loss. I decided I had to see another specialist the next day, so I started searching for clinics and made a list of phone numbers to call in the morning. Most said they were busy, but thankfully one of them was able to fit me in!
The ENT specialist repeated a hearing test which gave similar results to the one I did at home, and explained that I qualified for treatment for SSNHL. This typically involves oral steroids, he said, but they can also provide antivirals and some kind of oxygen treatment. The latter he said was expensive and unlikely to make much difference, so I decided against that. If the oral steroids didn’t have any effect they would try injecting directly through the eardrum - ouch! I’m not sure if I could have gone for that, even if it was the last resort. He also told me that only about one third of patients fully recover, one third partially do so, and the other third don’t see any improvement. But he said I was still quite early to receive treatment, so that gave me some hope. I was also given blood tests and an MRI scan, but he said they rarely find anything, and that’s a good thing - because it would indicate something more serious. Most of the time, they never find an underlying cause of the hearing loss.
Nothing improved for the first 5 days of the medication. The tinnitus got worse and I became very sensitive to noise. This was very strange and not what I thought hearing loss would be like. Rather than just quiet in my right ear, there was so much noise that it drowned out everything else. Places with a lot of background noise like malls and waiting areas became unbearable and I resorted to wearing headphones. Even at home, my daughter’s usual volume of excitement became too much to handle. It was very difficult.
Then eventually things started to feel different. The background noise continued to get worse, but I could feel my hearing was improving too. This was on Thursday 2nd March - the 6th day of treatment and 10 days after the symptoms first started. I tried the online hearing test again and there did seem to be some improvement in the lower frequencies. What a relief! I continued to monitor over the next few days, and gradually the tinnitus started to calm down, loud noises didn’t bother me as much and the hearing test is (as of today) normal, although the right ear is still slightly worse. I used the audiogram feature in the iOS health app to record the test results, which was very useful to see the progress.
I think I was extremely fortunate to recover (likely fully), and thankful that I was able to get an appointment that day. Even though my hearing loss was only in one ear, and at lower frequencies, it was extremely challenging to deal with. I had no idea that this kind of hearing loss can happen suddenly and needs urgent treatment; I’ll definitely pay closer attention in future. If you ever notice a sudden change in hearing, please don’t hesitate - get checked and do a hearing test straight away.