Painkillers Linked to Hearing Loss

Frequent use of the analgesic medicines ibuprofen and acetaminophen has been found to increase the likelihood of hearing loss in women, particularly for those under fifty years of age according to a recent study published by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Scientists suggest that these drugs—which are marketed under brand names Advil, Motrin, and Tylenol among others—may reduce blood flow to the cochlea, our primary hearing organ, and impair its function. They also posit that these drugs could disrupt the body’s mechanisms to protect the cochlea from damage.

“We previously found that men who used these medications regularly had an increased risk for developing hearing loss,” said Sharon E. Curhan, head researcher of the study and instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “However, this relation had not yet been examined in women, who use these medications even more frequently than men.”

Curhan and other researchers discovered this association between analgesics and hearing loss in women through a 14-year study conducted at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital from 1995 to 2009.

In the study, 62,261 women aged 31 to 48 years old were observed for their use of ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or aspirin. By the end of 14 years, 10,012 women had self-reported experiencing hearing loss.

Findings revealed that while ibuprofen and acetaminophen were associated with hearing loss, aspirin did not have an effect.

Upon further analysis, researchers found that those who used the medicines two or three times per week had more than a 10 percent higher risk for hearing loss than those who used them less than once a week.

For women taking the medicines up to four or five days a week, the risk of developing hearing loss jumped to 21 percent.

Hearing loss is an extremely common, and often disabling, chronic condition, Curhan said. It may have a negative impact on an individual’s communication, social life, and productivity.

According to previous research, in the U.S. alone up to one-third of women in their fifties and two-thirds of women in their sixties have experienced some degree of hearing loss.

“A great take-home message is that even though these analgesics are widely available in drugstores and supermarkets without a prescription, they are still medications and they have potential side effects,” Curhan said.

“It is important to take them mindfully.”

—Staff writer Michi Denise L. Ferreol can be reached at mferreol@college.harvard.edu.

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