Numerous drugs can damage your inner ear a phenomenon known as ototoxicity – causing hearing impairment, tinnitus or balance problems. Difficulties may begin after just one dose, or may appear after weeks or even months, and may be temporary or permanent.

The main culprits include aspirin, quinine and certain antibiotics, as well as diuretics and chemotherapy drugs. Aspirin ototoxicity is particularly common, occurring in up to one in 100 people, and older people are more at risk. It most often causes tinnitus, sometimes with mild hearing loss. Fortunately, recovery usually occurs within three days of you stopping taking it.

  • SEEK HELP If you notice any new ear symptoms, speak to your doctor about whether your medication could be responsible.
  • Soft consonants – f, g, s, t and z – may be harder to hear or to distinguish in words that sound alike, such as ‘sat’ and ‘fat’.
  • It’s harder to follow conversations against background noise or to understand rapid speech, unfamiliar words or complicated language.
  • It’s more difficult to pinpoint where a sound is coming from.

  • Don’t ignore it
    If you’ve noticed that your hearing has deteriorated, or if others have commented on it, ask your doctor for an assessment. Hearing loss can affect many aspects of daily life – you may be missing important conversations, for example. Continually straining to hear is also draining, and hinders your communication with loved ones. It may led you to withdraw from social situations, causing isolation and possibly leading to depression. Hearing loss may even promote cognitive decline, since social interactions protect against it. In one study older people with hearing loss were more likely to develop dementia, and the risk rose with increasing severity of hearing loss. The same researchers found that only a fifth of people with poor hearing used hearing aids. And scientists have shown that reduced hearing in older adults accelerates loss of brain density in areas linked to speech processing. ‘Preserving your hearing doesn’t only protect your ears, but also helps your brain perform at its best.

    If you’re worried about your hearing, ask your doctor to check for obvious problems. Hearing loss may be due to a build-up of earwax, a cold or an infection, which can all be treated, or if medication is responsible the drug may be changed. Otherwise, you’ll be referred to a hospital audiology clinic or ear, nose and throat (ENT) department for tests and to assess whether your hearing loss is temporary or permanent. You’ll be advised about any suitable treatment and may be referred to an ENT specialist to investigate the underlying cause.

    Your hearing specialist may suggest that you would benefit from a hearing aid. There are different types, but in most cases a modern (digital) hearing aid would be recommended. In severe cases, a cochlear implant or a hearing dog may help. Your specialist can also provide information on devices to help around the house, such as telephone amplifies or a loop system. This is a wire loop installed permanently or temporarily around an area to amplify sound for anyone within the loop wearing a hearing aid with a telecoil (switch or t-coil). The following can also help:
  • Position yourself in front of people when chatting and ensure that you have good home lighting to help you see faces – most people with hearing problems speech read (lip read) to some extent.
  • Move closer. A voice on the other side of a typical living room can be up to 150 times quieter than one by your ear.
  • Minimize background noise when talking – turn off radios and TVs.

  • Using a hearing aid
    Hearing aids have come a long way. Modern (digital) hearing aids can be specifically programmed to your hearing loss. For example, in most age-related hearing loss, it is higher frequencies that people struggle to hear, which affects the clarity of speech. A digital hearing aid can be programmed to give more high-frequency sound, thus improving speech clarity. Feedback (whistling) from the hearing aid is more controllable. The aids are often fully automatic and adjust themselves according to the situation you are in, which can help with background noise. As well as more effective versions of traditional behindthe- ear devices, hearing aids can now sit completely inside your ear canal, virtually invisible from the outside. (You can now also buy Hearring’s cleverly designed pieces of jewellery that attach to specially developed ear moulds of behind-the-ear hearing aids.) Wireless technology even enables aids to pick up signals directly from TVs, mobile phones and MP3 players, providing consistency and clarity of sound, so you can enjoy your favourite music again, talk to your grandchildren on the phone, and watch television at a volume to suit everyone.

  • BE REALISTIC Hearing aids won’t give you perfect hearing, but should help you hear everyday sounds. Allow yourself time to adapt it can take up to three months for your brain to relearn how to process altered sound. Always have spare batteries, especially if you go into hospital, so that you don’t have problems communicating with staff.