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Understanding hearing loss after chemotherapy

Last update on Nov, 15, 2021

Modern medicine and technology have made treating cancer more possible than ever. However, even with more advanced and effective therapies, undergoing cancer treatment is not easy for patients or loved ones. Patients who use chemotherapy to treat cancer may experience a range of side effects, with some more serious and permanent than others. One such negative side effect is hearing loss after chemotherapy. Read on to learn why this occurs and how to monitor it.

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Chemotherapy and hearing loss

Different types of chemotherapy can cause a variety of side effects in patients. Among chemotherapies, platinum-based chemotherapy side effects are most likely to involve sudden hearing loss as it is ototoxic—meaning it can damage your hearing health and lead to tinnitus, hearing loss and/or balance issues. The most common platinum-based chemotherapies (chemo medication that contains platinum) are cisplatin and carboplatin. The drug cisplatin is used to treat several types of cancer and is most widely known for treating testicular, cervical, ovarian and bladder cancers. 

Ototoxicity of chemotherapy

Certain kinds of drugs, including platinum-based chemotherapy, are ototoxic. Ototoxic medications don’t affect all patients in the same way and their effects on hearing health vary based on a person’s age, health history, the type of drug and the extent of exposure.

Cisplatin is highly ototoxic, and according to the National Cancer Institute, causes inner ear damage to at least 50% of children who use this medication and to 40% to 80% of adults who do. This damage to the cochlea and inner ear hair cells leads to severe and permanent hearing loss. 

Ear problems after radiation

Radiation therapy, another form of cancer treatment that’s often used in conjunction with chemotherapy, can also cause hearing problems for patients. Radiation uses high-energy particles or waves to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Especially when used to treat head or neck cancers, radiation therapy may lead to damage of the cochlea or acoustic nerve, resulting in sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL).

Radiation therapy can also result in conductive hearing loss, or hearing loss due to issues in the outer or middle ear. This kind of treatment can cause the ear canal to narrow, the eardrum to thicken or the buildup of fluid in the middle ear.

Monitoring hearing loss after chemotherapy

A cancer diagnosis can mean making difficult decisions when it comes to your treatment plan. Life-saving treatments like platinum-based chemotherapy can have side effects detrimental to quality of life, such as hearing loss. It’s important to talk to your doctor about the potential risks and benefits of any treatment so you feel informed and confident about your plan.

If you begin treatment with an ototoxic medication, it’s important to continually monitor your hearing health and look for signs of hearing loss. Before starting treatment, schedule a hearing test to establish a baseline of your hearing and balance systems. During the course of treatment, it’s a good idea to schedule periodic hearing tests to stay on top of any changes to your hearing that may be happening slowly and subtly.

Be sure to look out for any noticeable changes to your hearing as well. Symptoms of early hearing loss include not being able to understand certain sounds, missing parts of conversations, trouble hearing in crowds and hearing ringing in your ears

Managing hearing loss after cancer treatment

Nobody should have to choose between being cancer-free or maintaining their hearing. Although hearing loss after chemotherapy is permanent due to irreversible damage of the inner ear, hearing aids can help. At Miracle-Ear, we offer a variety of hearing aid types and styles, with a range of technologies and features, to help all patients find a hearing aid that meets their needs. If you’ve lost your hearing due to chemotherapy or another form of cancer treatment, visit your local Miracle-Ear center today and start your journey to better hearing.

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