Can Aspirin Hurt Your Hearing?
What Is Ototoxicity?
The definition of ototoxicity, in its simplest form, is ear poisoning (“oto” = ear, “toxicity” = poisoning). A substance is considered ototoxic if it is known to cause hearing loss, balance disorders, or tinnitus after being ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. The drug, chemical, or other agent damages the inner ear or vestibulo-cochlear nerve, which sends balance and hearing information to the brain from the inner ear.
What Causes Ototoxicity?
Today there are more than 200 known ototoxic medications on the market. These include medicines used to treat serious infections, cancer, and heart disease. Some common medications that can cause temporary ototoxicity are aspirin, quinine (to treat malaria), and loop diuretics (to treat specific hearing and kidney conditions).
Pregnant women may be at risk of exposing their unborn child to ototoxic substances, such as Accutane, Dilantin, alcohol, and drugs used in chemotherapy. After birth, a child may be at risk for hearing loss because of exposure to certain aminoglycoside antibiotics, diuretics, cisplatin, and other ototoxic agents.
Organic solvents are the most commonly identified ototoxic chemicals. These are a chemical class of compounds typically used in commercial industries. These agents take the form of gases, solvents, paints, metals, and pesticides and number in the hundreds. Some agents, known as high-priority ototoxins, present immediate danger in certain elemental forms. Examples are toluene, xylene, styrene, n-hexane, trichloroethylene, carbon monoxide, and alcohol, and workers should avoid exposure to any and all related products.
Anytime certain chemicals are absorbed by the body while the ears are exposed to dangerous levels of noise, risk of ototoxicity may increase (as in boat building, construction, firefighting, painting, and firing weapons). These include chemicals such as benzene, carbon disulfide, carbon monoxide, ethylbenzene, hydrogen cyanide, lead, and mercury. Some of these are found in organic solvents that are widely used for a variety of commercial and recreational projects. Many of the following are used in products that present simultaneous noise and chemical hazards:
- Automotive and aviation fuels
- Paint thinners
- Fabric and paper coatings
- Printing inks
- Spray surface coatings
- Insect repellents
What Can I Do to Protect Myself?
To protect yourself from both chemical-induced hearing loss and noise-induced hearing loss, or the combined effects from a mixture of the two:
- Remove hazardous substances or noises from the workplace
- Use less-hazardous chemicals to perform duties
- Take steps to minimize exposure through inhalation, ingestion, skin absorption, and sound
- Add ventilation and skin, respiratory, and hearing protection
- Create a hearing-conservation program that considers and monitors the combined effects of exposure to solvents and noise
If you’re prescribed drugs that turn out to be ototoxic, do not decide to stop taking them. If your provider is monitoring your hearing status, they will be better able to advise you on the risks of the medication and provide appropriate management.