A man holds his hand behind his ear as if to say 'speak up'

M ost cases of hearing loss are due to age or exposure to very loud noises, says Felipe Santos, M.D., an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the Harvard Medical School.

But other factors can harm your hearing. 

More on Hearing

“With some less common causes, patients ignore their symptoms, thinking they’re going to resolve themselves,” says Santos. “Often we miss opportunities for treatment, or the outcome could’ve been better if they had been evaluated sooner.”

An estimated 48 million Americans have some level of hearing loss.

Here, some unexpected conditions, behaviors, and medications associated with damaged hearing, and how to avoid their added risk. 

Medications

Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic), ibuprofen (Advil and generic), and aspirin have been linked to an increased risk of hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing in the ears) when taken at high doses or for long periods.

Hydrocodone/acetaminophen (Vicodin and generic) and quinines, used to treat malaria, also carry hearing risks.

Other life-saving drugs can directly damage hearing, often permanently. These include aminoglycoside anti­bi­otics—among the first antibiotics but now reserved only for very serious infections—and the chemotherapy drug cisplatin. 

Infections

A viral or bacterial infection can suddenly sink your ability to hear, and that damage can be lasting if you don’t get treated quickly. Ear infections are the most common culprit, Santos says. But upper respiratory tract infections, such as colds, can also cause abrupt damage.

See a doctor if you notice a sudden loss of hearing. Prompt treatment with steroids can minimize your risk of permanent damage, Santos says.

Treating the cause of the infection will help, too, says Kevin H. Franck, Ph.D., director of audiology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear at the Harvard Medical School. 

Earwax

Sometimes a hearing problem may be due to something as simple as a blockage, such as impacted earwax. This is especially common in people who wear hearing aids. Cleaning with cotton swabs can push wax further into your ear.

If you notice your hearing worsening and if your ears feel itchy, full, or stuffed, see your doctor. He or she may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist. An experienced specialist can irrigate the earwax with hydrogen peroxide, soften it with mineral oil, or remove it manually. 

Health Conditions

Hearing loss is twice as common among people with diabetes as among those without it. “Small blood vessels that supply the inner ear can be affected in conditions like diabetes,” Santos says.

Osteoporosis—which may damage tiny bones inside the ear—as well as high blood pressure and cholesterol have all been linked to an increased likelihood of hearing loss. Effective treatment might help reduce that risk. 

An Unhealthy Lifestyle

A recent study in Japan found that cigarette smokers were about one and a half times as likely as nonsmokers to develop high-frequency hearing loss, which can make understanding speech difficult. Additional studies have suggested that other lifestyle factors, such as a lack of exercise, might also increase the risk.

Though none of these studies proves that these behaviors cause hearing loss, a healthy lifestyle can benefit all organs in your body, including your ears.

One large study, for example, found that women whose diets focused mostly on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains had a 30 percent lower risk of hearing loss. 

Bottom Line

Both Santos and Franck say the best way to head off hearing loss is to avoid common triggers, such as loud sounds.

Quick attention to any hearing problems is also important.

“If patients are concerned with their hearing, they should check in with their physicians early,” Santos says. Many common problems can be treated. And if you do have hearing loss, hearing aids may be an effective solution. 

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the December 2018 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.