I was recently prescribed a new medication by my doctor but before I began taking it, I wanted to understand if it could harm my hearing. I already have a moderate progressive hearing loss, so I do everything I can to protect the hearing I still have.
“I have hearing loss so am wondering if this drug is ototoxic?” I asked the prescribing doctor. “I don’t think it is a problem,” she said, “but I’m not certain. You should check with your internist or audiologist.”
I called my primary care doctor and asked the same question. “The prescribing doctor should be able to tell you,” she said. “It is probably OK, but I’m not sure. You could also try asking your audiologist.”
Today I visited my audiologist, hoping I would finally have the answer, but his reply was no more certain. “The ingredients look fine to me, but I can’t be sure. Have you asked the prescribing doctor or your primary care doctor? What about an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor?”
Finding Medical Information About Hearing Loss Is Difficult
Heavy sigh. Nobody on my current healthcare team seemed to know the answer. Perhaps this is because hearing loss is not always taken seriously by the broader medical community. Hearing loss is often seen as a normal part of aging rather than the life-altering disability it is. Another reason could be a lack of relevant information. Even in 2021, there is still very little known about the biological causes and treatments for hearing problems.
Disappointed, I turned to Dr. Google. Here I found information about ototoxic drugs which I share below, but nothing definitive about my medication. One study linked my proposed treatment to a higher risk of hearing loss, while an equally reliable study found the opposite result. Each said that additional research is needed.
Searching the Internet for medical information is not always wise or accurate. One alarming find was American Tinnitus Association’s 2013 list of Prescription Medications, Drugs, Herbs & Chemicals Associated with Tinnitus. Almost everything is on there.
What Is an Ototoxic Drug?
Medicines that damage the ear, causing hearing problems, tinnitus, or vertigo, are referred to as ototoxic drugs. According to American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), there are more than 200 known ototoxic medications (prescription and over-the-counter) on the market today.
Commonly used medicines that may cause hearing loss include:
- Aspirin in large doses
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen
- Certain antibiotics, especially aminoglycosides
- Loop diuretics used to treat high blood pressure and heart failure
- Medicines used to treat cancer
The first sign of an ototoxic drug is often tinnitus or ringing in the ears. Balance problems can also result. Sometimes hearing problems caused by an ototoxic drug can be reversed if you stop taking it, but other times the damage is permanent.
IMPORTANT ADVICE: If you are taking a new medication and experience any changes in your hearing, balance or notice ringing in your ears, call your doctor immediately. A sudden drop in hearing is a medical emergency and can sometimes be reversed with steroid treatment. Do not delay.
Where does this leave me?
I will reach out to an otolaryngologist or ENT doctor to see if I can learn more, but most likely I will simply need to move slowly — trying out the new prescription as I keep a careful watch on any changes in my hearing or tinnitus. Fingers crossed that vigilance will be enough to prevent long-lasting harm.
The inner ear is a sensitive place, and little is known about the causes of hearing loss, balance problems, vertigo, and tinnitus, even among the medical profession. More research is needed to help people with hearing loss navigate this challenging environment.
Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a popular blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss, (co-authored with Gael Hannan) is the ultimate survival guide to living well with hearing loss. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues. Connect with Shari: Blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter.