Smoking e-cigarettes, or “vaping,” may be hazardous to your hearing health. So says Australian musician Rob Swire, who recently took to social media to share the fact that he believes his vaping habit led to hearing loss in one ear. Luckily for Swire, the hearing loss was temporary, but through his experience he learned that certain chemicals used in “e-juice”—the potion one inhales to create the vapor from an e-cigarette—are ototoxic, or toxic to the ear. Swire claims he has quit vaping to save his hearing, and is using social media to urge others to do the same.
According to Swire, his doctors believe that the ototoxic property in his e-cigarettes was possibly propylene glycol (PG). Several blog posts that cropped up after Swire’s tweets about his hearing loss went viral reveal that others using e-cigarettes have experienced similar symptoms after “vaping”—from occlusion in the ears, to tinnitus and hearing loss. Most of the blog posts, as well as the recent tweets from Swire, have emphasized the fact that a discussion connecting hearing loss to e-cigarettes is largely anecdotal, because no studies to date have been conducted on the potential negative effects on the ear or hearing from the propylene glycol contained in e-cigarettes or other inhalers. Further, several commenters have asked if Swire’s hearing loss may have been caused by exposure to noise or other factors known to cause hearing damage.
It isn’t clear if Swire had been using hearing protection or if he’d had his hearing tested before his recent experience, but in his tweets, he described his symptoms as coming on fairly suddenly after vaping and urged others who experience similar symptoms to stop vaping immediately, and consult an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) doctor. Swire’s symptoms reportedly included ear occlusion, ear pressure, loss of low and high frequencies, difficulty understanding people in noise, and tinnitus.
Swire later sent a tweet stating he’d be willing to help fund a research study on hearing loss and related problems induced by exposure to PG from e-cigarette vapor. While we don’t yet know if the chemical vapor from e-cigarettes can cause hearing damage, or if e-cigarettes can compound or exacerbate a sensorineural hearing loss, the ototoxic properties of propylene glycol and other alcohol-based solvents have been studied in relation to eardrops and other products. The research literature indicates that these solvents can pose a danger to hearing when used topically.
According to published studies, eardrops (antibiotic drops, swimmer’s eardrops, etc) that contain high concentrations of PG or other alcohol-based solvents should be avoided or used with caution due to the damage they can cause to the ear, particularly if there is a perforation in the eardrum, or tympanic membrane.
Additionally, the potential ototoxic effects of nicotine cigarettes have been studied, and smoking is generally considered to be a risk factor for hearing loss. At least one research study examined the health impact of the chemicals in cigarettes and revealed the joint effects of smoking and noise exposure on hearing loss, which could indicate that e-cigarettes might pose a similar risk.
Often touted as a healthier alternative to conventional nicotine cigarettes, e-cigarettes are still new and their effects on our health are still unknown, so the FDA cautions consumers about the potential dangers. A benefit of Swire’s willingness to share his recent vaping-hearing loss experience may be that smokers will think twice before switching to e-cigarettes as a so-called “healthy” way to kick the habit.
“We may not have all the information yet, but e-cigarettes are certainly an important potential new cause of sensorineural hearing loss to be aware of,” says Maurice Miller, PhD, professor emeritus of Audiology at New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, and HR Editorial Advisory Board member. “There may be other factors contributing to Mr. Swire’s hearing loss, such as noise exposure and previous tobacco smoking, but the potential harm to hearing of e-cigarettes is worth exploring further.”
Since the current discussion of e-cigarettes as a potential cause of hearing loss has largely involved musicians or DJs, Dr Miller emphasized that before drawing conclusions, a licensed audiologist would need to know if the patient had any noise-induced hearing loss before vaping, if there were other risk factors involved, and if they were consistent about wearing hearing protection.
Dr Miller added that people experiencing any or all of the symptoms described by Swire should be encouraged to visit an audiologist to have their hearing tested above the range that is used in most conventional hearing tests, which test in the 125-8,000 Hz range. Dr Miller advises that the hearing test be extended to the 10,000-20,000 Hz range. In some instances, the hearing loss could be a late onset problem, so periodic audiologic assessments would also be advised.