Some medications damage hearing and cause hearing loss. In fact, they are surprisingly common. Other medicines may improve hearing or hearing-related conditions such as tinnitus. Here’s the low-down on medications that affect your hearing — for better or for worse.
Drugs Can Affect Your Hearing
Pharmaceuticals is a nearly $500 billion industry and the United States accounts for almost half of that consumption.
Are you buying medications over-the-counter? Or are you taking ones that your doctor prescribes? All medications carry risk, and while side effects and risks may be listed in the paperwork, no one ever thinks they’ll be affected. That’s why emphasizing that some medications may increase your risk of hearing loss is so important.
On a more positive note, some medications, like tinnitus medications, can actually help your hearing. But how do you know which drugs are safe and which are the medications that hurt your hearing? And what do you do if a doctor prescribes drugs that cause hearing loss? Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly on medications.
Over-the-Counter Painkillers That Can Harm Your Hearing
Many people are shocked to hear that something they take so casually could cause hearing loss.
Researchers looked at the type of painkillers, frequency, and duration of use and compared it to the frequency of hearing loss of research participants. They found that many over-the-counter pain killers can cause hearing loss. This link can be supported by several studies of both men and women.
A collaborative study among Harvard, Brigham Young, and Women’s Hospital found something shocking. Long-term, regular use of over-the-counter painkillers damages hearing. Regular use is described as 2 or more times a week. You generally see this frequency in people with chronic pain.
Taking too much aspirin at once can also cause temporary hearing loss, which may become permanent over time.
NSAID drugs that contain ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and naproxen seem to be the most common.
But you may be shocked to find the one with the strongest link. The drug commonly known as acetaminophen was the culprit. Men under 50 saw their hearing loss risk nearly double if they were using this drug to treat chronic pain.
Prescription Pain Killers Can Also Cause Hearing Loss
Just for the record, prescription painkillers aren’t any better. Here are a few prescription drugs that may cause hearing loss:
The exact cause of the hearing loss is unclear. These drugs may reduce blood flow to your sensitive inner ear, which over time would kill nerves that pick up sound. That’s why prolonged use of these medications may lead to permanent hearing loss.
Some Antibiotics Are Ototoxic
Many antibiotics are probably relatively safe when used as directed and you’re not allergic. But a certain type of antibiotic may increase the risk of hearing loss: Aminoglycoside.
Studies are in the initial stages so we haven’t seen solid data in human studies yet. But there have been some individuals who appear to have developed hearing loss after taking some antibiotics.
Results from animal-testing are convincing though. The medical community thinks there may be something to be concerned about.
Mice that took these antibiotics over a period of time eventually lost their hearing permanently, every time.
Aminoglycoside antibiotics are commonly used to treat:
- Bacterial meningitis
- Cystic fibrosis
- Tuberculosis (TB)
- Some other respiratory diseases
Unlike most antibiotics, they’re more often used over an extended period of time to treat very persistent infections.
Until recently, Neomycin was actually a very common antibiotic used to treat children’s ear infections and pneumonia. Side effect concerns over the years have led doctors to prescribe alternatives.
More research is needed to determine why some antibiotics may contribute to hearing loss. It appears that they may cause inflammation in the inner ear that causes long-term damage.
How Quinine Affects Your Hearing
If you’ve ever had a gin and tonic, then you’ve had quinine. Quinine is used to treat malaria and has also been used to help people suffering from restless leg syndrome – while also being the key ingredient in tonic water that gives the drink its bitter taste. While research that studies the correlation between quinine use and hearing loss isn’t that widespread, there have been several cases noted where malaria patients treated with quinine have suffered from reversible hearing loss.
Chemo and Other Drugs to Fight Cancer Can Damage Your Hearing
You know there will be side effects when you go through chemo. Doctors are filling the body with toxins in an effort to kill cancer cells. These toxins can’t often tell the difference between healthy cells and cancer.
Some of the drugs under scrutiny are:
- Cisplatin commonly known as Platinol
- Carboplatin commonly known as Paraplatin
- Bleomycin commonly known as Blenoxane
Unfortunately, chemo-induced hearing loss is a necessary tradeoff when fighting cancer. You may want to speak with a hearing specialist about monitoring your hearing while you’re going through cancer treatments or find out if there are any recommendations the specialist can make that can help in your individual situation.
Loop Diuretics and Hearing Loss
You may be using diuretics to help regulate fluid balance in your body. As with any attempt to regulate something with medication, you can go too far in one direction, dehydrating the body.
This can cause salt to water ratios to get too high in the body, causing inflammation. This can cause hearing loss, which is usually temporary. But if the imbalance is allowed to go on or keeps happening, the hearing loss could be permanent.
Taking loop diuretics with ototoxic drugs (the drugs listed in this article) could make the long-term damage much worse.
Lasix is the most commonly known loop diuretic, so if you’re prescribed this medication, you should check with your doctor about any side effects that may occur in combination with other medications you’re taking.
Tinnitus Medications: Anti-Anxiety Medications
Tinnitus does have a physical component. But what the mind does in response can make tinnitus worse.
When you hear constant noise in your ear you struggle to understand your friends while being out and about. Enjoying music may become a thing of the past. It always has the tinnitus sound transposed over it. And you can forget about falling asleep easily with that persistent chirp, ring, or hum in your ear.
All of these can make a person feel sleep-deprived, agitated, and anxious. As anxiety worsens, the tinnitus responds by getting worse. It makes you even more agitated.
Tinnitus medications that treat anxiety can stop this vicious cycle in some patients.
If you have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression, or think you may have them, speak with your doctor. Treating the mental health condition may also help the tinnitus.
The most common tinnitus medication recommended by doctors if a person has anxiety is Xanax. But Xanax can cause drowsiness and nausea in addition to being habit-forming. You and your doctor may agree that your anxiety level is low. If so, you may be able to explore more conservative anti-anxiety medications first. These typically have fewer side effects.
You may also want to explore support groups or therapy sessions. Often treating anxiety is more about learning to manage stress, which sessions like these really help with.
Antidepressants Can Be Used as Tinnitus Medications
Depression can cause a similar downward spiral. So again, treating the depression may reduce your tinnitus symptoms.
According to the Mayo Clinic, doctors commonly prescribe tricyclic antidepressants. These treat depression when a person also has severe tinnitus.
Like many medications, however, it does have some side effects including:
- Blurred vision
- Severe dry mouth
- Heart problems.
Your doctor will likely want to try other antidepressants first. And if you’re on these tinnitus medications you should talk to your doctor about any side effects you may experience.
Medications Known to Cause Tinnitus
Tinnitus can be brought on by several different factors, but one common cause is medication. Higher dosages typically mean more severe cases of tinnitus, but there is a silver lining: if you can stop using these medications, your tinnitus symptoms may disappear. The following are some medications that can cause tinnitus (spoiler alert: many of these are the same that cause hearing loss):
- Cancer medications
Caffeine and nicotine can also lead to tinnitus.
Medications for Chronic Conditions Can Help Tinnitus
High blood pressure and unmanaged diabetes can make tinnitus worse. Keeping these under control with diet, exercise, and medication can reduce tinnitus symptoms. This is because the underlying issues of these conditions all relate to blood flow, which can severely impact your hearing and tinnitus symptoms. You should speak to your doctor about taking iron supplements and other medications that can get these conditions under control and return your hearing to normal.
Tinnitus Treatments That Don’t Involve Medication
You may also be concerned about the side effects of the above tinnitus medications. You should know that you have other options. These have proven very effective in treating tinnitus. There is no cure for tinnitus. But these options can help reduce it until it’s barely noticeable.
Hearing aids: Many hearing aids have tinnitus-canceling technology built right in. This technology can either produce a sound that cancels the sound of the tinnitus out or they can help train your brain to “tune the sound out”. That’s not unlike what you might do if your sweet dog just won’t stop whining because he wants to go outside and play ball with you.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This is a therapy commonly used by psychiatrists. It involves identifying harmful mental habits. These might include negative self-talk. Then you retrain your brain in a more constructive direction.
Because there is a mental health component to the severity of the tinnitus, this may work for you.
Avoiding loud noise: If you have a noisy job or hobby, tinnitus can actually be a warning sign that you’re damaging your hearing. Limit your exposure and/or wear hearing protection.
What Should I Do If My Doc Thinks I Need to Go on Ototoxic Medications?
There are more than 200 medications that hurt your hearing on the market today, both prescription and over-the-counter, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that your doctor may tell you to take one or more of them to treat a condition.
If this is the case, you should speak with your doctor and a hearing specialist to develop a plan to monitor your ability to hear. This may involve visiting a hearing specialist on a regular basis so they can perform a hearing test to see if there are any changes. If you notice any difference in your hearing because of the ototoxic medications, you should speak with your doctor to find out if there are any options available to help reverse your hearing loss.
What to Do If You’re Taking Drugs That May Cause Hearing Loss
Never stop taking a drug that has been prescribed by a doctor without talking to your doctor first. Before you speak with your doctor, you should take inventory of your medicine cabinet. If your doctor has you on one or more of these drugs that cause hearing loss, ask if there are alternatives that may reduce risk.
You can also make lifestyle changes to reduce your need for medications. In some cases, small changes to your diet and exercise routine can put you on a healthier path. These changes may also be able to reduce pain and water retention while strengthening your immune system.
If you are or have been using these ototoxic medications, you should make an appointment to get your hearing tested as soon as possible. Hearing loss can progress very slowly, which makes it less detectable at first. But make no mistake: it can impact your health and happiness in ways you may not realize, and catching it early gives you more options for treatment.
New Medications to Treat Hearing Loss – Are They a Cure?
When you hear about medications that restore hearing, what’s your first thought?
It’s too good to be true? It’s another brand making false promises? It can’t possibly work? Given the dangerous hearing remedy myths out there, it’s good to have some healthy skepticism.
In this case, though, there is a promising hearing loss drug therapy in the early stages of research. Here’s more about who it might help and how long it’s likely to take to hit the market.
Breakthroughs in Genetic Science
Since the identification of DNA structure in the 1950s, researchers have been fascinated with our genetic makeup. Over the many decades of discovery since scientists have learned that DNA is why one person has blue eyes and another has brown. Your general height, aspects of your personality and even predisposition to certain diseases can often be mapped out in the genes that make up your DNA.
There’s still a lot the genetic researchers don’t know. And applying the knowledge to create treatments is still in its infancy. But as we learn more, we’re beginning to see researchers asking important questions.
What’s the genetic component of hearing loss? Could we develop treatments to address that specific gene?
A Genetic Look at Hereditary Hearing Loss
Congenital hearing loss can be the result of genes passed down from the parent. In some cases, a baby may not be born with DNA that will lead to hearing loss, but a mutation occurs in a baby’s DNA while they’re developing in the womb.
Researchers at the University of Iowa Laboratory of Human Molecular Genetics have previously been able to locate the LMG2 family of genes, which are responsible for deafness passed down through the family. Later the same team was able to further narrow the culprit to a mutation in a certain part of the chromosome called DFNA27.
The final stage was to isolate the specific gene causing the hearing loss. It’s known as the REST gene. Once isolated, these scientists began looking for possible drug therapies to alter this gene.
A Possible Genetic Treatment
Researchers have already been able to restore low-frequency hearing in mice using this new genetic treatment. Humans, like mice, hear sound in many different frequencies (pitches).
Frequency isn’t volume. It’s how fast sound waves hit your ears. These frequencies make up the complexity of sound.
They help you determine if your son is saying “Bog” or “Dog” as the two of you enjoy Sunday afternoon conversations. Frequency helps you distinguish between your cat’s meow and the cry of a neighbor’s child when he stubs his toe on the sidewalk outside your home.
Without frequency, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy the subtle tone changes in music or a singer’s voice.
Restoring low frequency in mice means that the mice can now more clearly hear and understand sounds at a low pitch. This is a partial restoration of hearing that could potentially advance to a wider range of frequencies.
They did this by finding a way to “turn on” and “off” part of the REST genes. When it’s on, it protects the inner ear’s sensory hair cells responsible for hearing. When it’s turned off, deafness occurs.
How This May Be Used to Treat Hearing Loss
Human trials are likely well down the road. The FDA requires extensive testing before something like this is made available to the general public. The FDA has to make sure, for example, that there are no potential side effects that cause more harm than good. Experts will need to work all that out to ensure public safety.
If and when this genetic drug treatment is approved by the FDA, this may be a way to restore partial hearing in those with hereditary hearing loss, or they may be able to prevent some congenital hearing loss at birth.
As drug therapy improves, it could also demonstrate that it can prevent or slow down age-related hearing loss. Since this gene has been shown to improve the survival of the tiny hair cells in the inner ear that pick up sound, manipulating it may reinforce these very delicate cells. They do not regenerate if damaged, so preserving them is essential to preventing hearing loss.
Page medically reviewed by Kevin St. Clergy, Audiologist, on April 24, 2020.