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Sensorineural hearing loss

Understanding sensorineural hearing loss

Sensorineural hearing loss is one of three types of hearing loss. Learn more about what it is, what causes it, and how you can prevent and manage the symptoms.
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What is sensorineural hearing loss?

Making sense of sensorineural hearing loss

Sensorineural hearing loss, or SNHL, is a form of hearing loss resulting from damage to the inner ear or auditory nerve. Generally caused by the loss of tiny hair cells in the inner ear, sensorineural hearing loss is the most common type of permanent hearing loss.

While it may not be a life-threatening condition, those living with it can experience both physical and psychological effects. From dizziness and tinnitus to withdrawal from social activities and possible cognitive decline, understanding and recognizing the signs of sensorineural hearing loss can help you better address symptoms and take steps to improve your hearing abilities.

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Getting to the root of the problem

The reasons for sensorineural hearing loss can vary, with both genetic and environmental factors playing a role. It may occur in one or both ears depending on the cause.

This type of hearing loss is linked to a problem in the inner ear, which can result from a variety of factors. For instance, the hair cells in the ear may not function properly due to disease or damage. Changes in the ear that occur with age, as well as exposure to loud noises, can also affect the inner ear and lead to sensorineural hearing loss.

Aside from these common causes, there are other factors that can contribute to this type of hearing loss. These include head injuries, autoimmune diseases, the presence of a benign tumor, Ménière's disease, medications that are toxic to the ear, and malformations of the inner ear.

Signs and symptoms

Recognizing sensorineural hearing loss

If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), there are some tell-tale signs you can look out for. These include:
  • Trouble hearing with background noise present, such as at a restaurant or party, passing by roadworks, or music playing
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Muffled hearing, feeling of fullness in the ear, or the impression that people are mumbling when talking to you
  • Difficulty understanding speech, especially high-pitched noises, such as birds chirping, children speaking or a microwave beeping
  • Dizziness and balance issues
Symptoms of SNHL can occur in one ear (unilateral), both ears (bilateral) or can occur in both ears but be worse in one (asymmetrical). If you believe you’re experiencing sensorineural hearing loss, a comprehensive hearing screening can establish the extent of your hearing loss and help you find the treatment path that's right for you. Our online hearing screening is a great first step in assessing your current hearing abilities.
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Sensorineural hearing loss audiogram

Decoding your hearing screening results

An audiogram for sensorineural hearing loss generally shows a pattern of hearing loss for high and low frequencies, and, in many cases, affects one ear more than the other.

Depending on the cause of the hearing loss, the degree and configuration can vary. You may also see a sloping pattern, in which the hearing loss is more prominent in higher frequencies and improves towards the lower ones.

Bone conduction and air threshold tests can also be conducted. If both of these screenings are the same, there would be no indication of sound being blocked from the outer or middle ear and would point to a sensorineural hearing loss.

Audiograms can help you better understand the nature and severity of your hearing loss, making them a great tool for establishing proper treatment methods.

The audiogram below is an example of what sensorineural hearing loss could look like. The red line with the O shows the right ear and the blue one with the X shows the left ear.

More about audiograms
Sensorineural hearing loss audiogram

Protecting your hearing health

When it comes to protecting your hearing, there are two key steps you can take to lower your risk of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Reduce exposure to loud noise
    Whether it's attending a concert, working in a noisy factory, or even mowing the lawn, loud noise can damage the delicate hair cells in your inner ear, leading to hearing loss. So, it's a good idea to use earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones in loud environments.
  • Avoid ototoxic medications
    Certain medications, such as some antibiotics and cancer drugs, can be toxic to the inner ear. It's important to talk to your doctor about any medications you're taking and, if possible, find alternatives that won't harm your hearing.
Ear muffs

Managing sensorineural hearing loss

Treating sensorineural hearing loss involves using hearing aids to amplify sounds and choosing the right model with professional help. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can prevent further damage, while regular hearing tests monitor and adjust treatment as needed.

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When hearing loss is sudden

Sudden sensorineural hearing loss

While sensorineural hearing loss most often occurs over time, in rare cases, it can also come on suddenly. This is referred to as sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNHL) and, to increase chances of restored hearing, should be looked at immediately.

SSNHL tends to occur in your 50s or 60s, but can happen at any age. If caught early, it can generally be treated.

It may start with a loud pop in the ear or you may feel like your ears are clogged. Your hearing will gradually decline within a matter of hours and the window for successful treatment usually falls between 10 to 14 days.

If you believe you may be experiencing sudden sensorineural hearing loss, contact your Hearing Care Professional immediately.

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Did you know?

It's more common than you think

Sensorineural hearing loss is by far the most common type of hearing loss. With causes ranging from genetics and age to noise-exposure, medications and other illnesses, it affects 90% of those living with hearing loss.
Expert advice

Don't be afraid to speak up

If you're having trouble hearing in a conversation, let the speaker know and ask them to speak clearly and face you directly. It can make all the difference!

Sensorineural hearing loss: FAQ

Can sensorineural hearing loss be treated?

Can you have sensorineural hearing loss in one ear?

Do you need a hearing aid for sensorineural hearing loss?

What is the difference between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss?

How is sensorineural hearing loss diagnosed?

How long does sensorineural hearing loss last?

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Do you suspect that you have hearing loss? Try our free online hearing screening.
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