Sudden sensorineural hearing loss



  • Mostly idiopathic
  • Prognosis depends on severity of hearing loss
  • Incidence estimates range from 2-20 per 100,000 people per year
  • Most commonly 43-53 years of age
  • Men and women affected equally

Clinical Features

  • Immediate/rapid hearing loss or hearing loss upon awakening
    • Mostly unilateral hearing loss
  • Sensation of blocked or full ear, patient doesn’t recognize hearing is gone
  • Difficulty in localizing sound
  • Tinnitus is common
  • Some patients report vertigo
  • Occasionally ear pain is present
  • No sign of obstruction or otitis media on physical exam

Differential Diagnoses

Ear Diagnoses





  • Weber test and Rinne test to rule out conductive hearing loss (poor man's version is to have patient hum with mouth closed and ask which side they hear it louder on; ipsilateral for conductive and contralateral for sensorineural)
  • Otoscopic exam to rule out OM, OE, foreign bodies, perforated TM or cholesteatoma
  • Remove impacted cerumen and re-examine
  • Complete neurologic exam to rule out stroke
  • Audiometric evaluation (typically as outpatient)
  • Consider MRI to rule out acoustic neuroma, perilymphatic fistula, Meniere's disease, vascular insufficiency, MS; usually can happen as outpatient
  • No role for routine laboratory testing or CT head imaging in absence of other findings



Outpatient follow-up with:

  • Audiogram in six months after initial diagnosis
  • Possible auditory rehabilitation for patients with permanent hearing loss
  • Consider assistive hearing devices


  • Spontaneous improvement is common
  • Better prognosis if high- or low-frequency hearing loss pattern rather than flat across all frequencies
  • Around 2/3 of patients will regain hearing in the affected ear
  • Worse prognosis in older patients
  • Worse in patients with vertigo

See Also


  1. Weber PC. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss. In: UpToDate. Accessed Sept 22 2014.
  2. Weber PC. Etiology of hearing loss in adults. In: UpToDate. Accessed Sept 22 2014.
  3. Molina, FJ. Hearing Loss, Chapter 18. Tintinalli’s Emergency Medicine.
  1. Clinical practice guideline: sudden hearing loss (update) executive summary Chandrasekhar SS, Tsai Do BS, Schwartz SR, et al. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2019;161(2):195-210.