Chemotherapy and Radiation Can Cause Hearing Loss

Hearing Loss and Cancer Treatments

Chemotherapy is a treatment for cancer which uses drugs – orally, topically, or via injection/infusion – to try to stop the growth of cancer cells in the human body. The intent of chemo is to eradicate cancer cells or to try to inhibit their growth. Radiation, also known as radiotherapy, is also a treatment for cancer. It relies on high-energy radiation to eradicate targeted cancer cells or to shrink tumors.

There are known possible side effects to chemo and radiation such as fatigue, nausea, bodily discomfort, fullness, pain, itchiness, sores, diarrhea, constipation, weight fluctuation, and hair loss. However, three important side effects from certain chemotherapy medications that are not mentioned as frequently are realted to the ears:

  • Temporary/permanent sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL)
  • Tinnitus
  • Loss of balance

Chemotherapy Drugs That Can Impair Hearing

Platinum-based chemotherapy medications such as Cisplatin and Carboplatin are the primary drugs that cause ototoxicity. They are used to treat brain, neck, head, lung, bladder and ovarian cancers in adults, and brain, bone and liver cancers in children. Ototoxicity usually refers to medications that harm the ear. In this case, something toxic is happening to the ear, specifically to the auditory nerve and vestibular system. In other words, Cisplatin and Carboplatin can both cause temporary or permanent hearing loss. Other chemotherapy drugs that can cause ototoxicity are Bleomycin, Vincristine, Vinblastin, Bromocriptine, and Methotrexate Nitrogen Mustard.

If you are undergoing/have undergone chemotherapy treatments or know someone who is/has, be advised to talk to a hearing specialist who can monitor ototoxic levels, evaluate you for ototoxic after-effects, and devise a hearing intervention plan which can include counseling, rehab, and treatment in the form of hearing aids. Incidentally, hearing aids help 95% of those with hearing loss hear better.

Hearing Loss, Ototoxicity, and Children

A study of children, adolescents, and young adults who underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments found that 61% experienced significant hearing loss, mostly high frequency hearing loss (HFHL). The sample study is too small to be conclusive but researchers believe this to be well-correlated to the outcome.

High frequency hearing loss (HFHL) is a potentially dangerous condition. If left untreated, there can be:

  • Speech and language development delays
  • Negative cognitive development and learning/comprehension results
  • Impaired psychosocial development

The Effect of Hearing Loss in Children

A study of 1,200 children with mild hearing loss indicated that 37% failed at least one educational grade (vs. the 3% average). In addition, these children also exhibited behavioral problems, fatigue, stress, and self-esteem issues.