The Daily Mail, a popular news publication in the United Kingdom, released an article exclaiming that “Women who take paracetamol or ibuprofen just twice a week could be damaging their hearing permanently.”
So, should you throw out your Advil and suffer through the occasional headache in order to protect your hearing? Well, maybe not. Though a recent study did find a link between extended use of over the counter painkillers and future hearing loss, reality is not as grim as the Daily Mail’s alarming headlines make it out to be.
About the study
In an exploration funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Harvard Medical School, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Vanderbilt University, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital looked at a subset of data from a long-term cohort study.
A cohort study follows a specific demographic — in this case, 121,700 white married nurses — over a long period of time. This particular cohort study is quite famous and often used as an example of the genre. It began in 1976 and it’s initial aim was to investigate the long term effects of oral contraceptives. It remains an important analysis and data set for the exploration of women’s health.
A closer look at the findings
Participants have been asked about their use of over the counter painkillers since the study began and data collection on self-reported hearing loss began in 2012.
Of all respondents, 33% reported a degree of hearing loss. It was determined that ibuprofen and acetaminophen — eg, Advil and Tylenol — were linked with a higher rate of hearing loss. Aspirin did not have a link with hearing loss, which may be because people tend to take it at lower doses and with less frequency than the other types of painkillers.
The length of time had bearing on the weight of impact, essentially that the longer one uses these painkillers regularly (defined by researchers as at least two times per week), thus increasing risk of hearing loss. In fact, the link only exists if participants took the painkillers for six or more years consecutively.
After taking into account confounding factors, such as age, obesity, ethnicity, tobacco and alcohol use in addition to others, researchers in this study calculated that 4% of hearing loss reported by study participants were the result of over the counter painkillers. 1.6% were the result of acetaminophen, like the brand Tylenol.
More research is needed on the link
This is not a conclusive finding and the link is fairly tenuous. In order to find a more substantial link between hearing loss and painkillers, further research is needed. Because this study did not exclusively examine the relationship between painkillers and hearing loss, it cannot be firmly stated that use of Advil or Tylenol causes hearing loss.
But, it does raise the issue and points to the need for further study. In the future, we can expect that a focused study on the link between painkillers and hearing loss will have more conclusive findings.
How to protect yourself
The study also asks us to take a look at how casually we are using everyday medicines. It’s a reminder that we should take over the counter painkillers only when prescribed or necessary and only follow recommended dosage.
We also may be masking a problem that requires more deliberate care. Instead of popping a few ibuprofen and ignoring the underlying cause, take your health issue to your doctor. You might find that your daily habit isn’t necessary if you source the root of the problem. Stress headaches, for instance, might be better managed with meditation or light exercise.
Other ways to protect your hearing
If you are concerned about the long term health of your hearing, there are other ways you can take a proactive approach. We could all benefit from closely monitoring the volumes on our personal devices. If you find yourself in habitually noisy environments, whether at work or in recreational activities, you might invest in protective headphones or custom earplugs.
Scheduling regular hearing health exams can also help you to stay on top of your hearing health. Our team of hearing health professionals stand at the ready to help you throughout any point of hearing loss treatment — whether that be preventative, diagnostic or hearing loss solutions.