Most of the hearing loss we see at Audibel comes from noise-related and age-related damage to a person’s hearing, but hearing loss can be caused by a wide variety of other factors. Infections and other health conditions like iron-deficiency anemia can cause permanent hearing loss. Strangely enough, certain medications are known to cause hearing damage as well. Drugs that have a negative impact on hearing are called “ototoxic” medications. While taking a medication that can damage your hearing is a difficult choice, many ototoxic drugs are life-saving, including many regimens of chemotherapy to treat various types of cancer.
The Side Effects of Chemo On Hearing
Chemotherapy treatments have developed in leaps and bounds over the past several decades with breakthrough advances that have made chemotherapy more and more effective against a wide range of cancers. One development involves a class of drugs that use platinum to counteract cancer growth. Platinum is a heavy metal and in addition to being very effective against abnormal cellular development it also has some unfortunate side effects. Platinum has been shown to also deplete and interfere with the myelin sheaths that protect our nerve cells from damage.
When Myelin is stripped from the nerve cells responsible for our hearing, the inner ear becomes particularly vulnerable to permanent hearing loss. The “hair cells” as they are known are so delicate they cannot be repaired once they are damaged, instead damaged hair cells place the cell’s functioning out of commission and create tiny gaps in our ability to hear. When many hair cells are harmed, noticeable hearing problems develop. The introduction of platinum to the body through chemotherapy can often exacerbate hearing damage, especially in patients where some hearing loss is already present.
Understanding Hearing Risks
Platinum is used in three of the more common chemotherapy treatment drugs. Oxaliplatin has been found to be effective in the treatment of colorectal cancers. Cisplatin is used primarily to treat cervical, ovarian, testicular, bladder, head and neck cancers and some lung cancers. Carboplatin is also used in cancers of the reproductive system, including uterine cancer. It is also used to push breast cancer, lung cancer, and head and neck cancers into remission.
Chemotherapy has given many people with cancer hope and restored their health, which makes potential hearing damage a more than acceptable risk. Platinum-based chemotherapies account for roughly half of all chemotherapy treatments administered and have been shown to be increasingly effective at restricting the growth and expansion of cancer.
While platinum chemotherapy patients boast better and better remission and survival rates, the risk of hearing damage is fairly high. About 20% of patients on cisplatin and carboplatin will experience significant hearing loss because of the drug. Tinnitus, or a persistent ringing in the ears, was present in over 50% of cases. Doctors who have long known about the ototoxic properties of chemotherapy drugs are just beginning to develop protocol to help cancer survivors manage their hearing health.
For cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy with hearing risks, medication is currently under development and testing that will lessen the risk of permanent hearing loss. While the new drugs are promising, they carry side effects of their own which include uncomfortable nausea and vomiting. Managing the side effects of aggressive cancer treatment often involve considering many risk-benefit scenarios, which should be discussed with medical professionals and loved ones.
The Good News
The good news for people who are treated with platinum chemotherapies and other ototoxic drugs is that while most hearing loss is permanent, it can be effectively managed with hearing aids. Hearing aids today are more discreet and more powerful than ever before, offering users digital sound balancing and clarity. Many devices now include connectivity options that allow audio to stream from phone calls and media players directly to your ear canal for better, more focused listening.
With the growing awareness around ototoxic chemotherapy, more oncologists are encouraging their patients to stay aware of their hearing health and catch the signs of developing hearing loss early. Regardless of cause, the earlier hearing loss is addressed, the more effective treatment will be.
At Audibel we know that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to treat hearing loss. In addition to comprehensive hearing tests, we work with you to make sure your hearing loss treatment fits into your lifestyle and adapts to your needs. If you have questions about your hearing, Audibel can help – call us to set up an appointment today.