Hearing after head and neck cancer treatment

Hearing can sometimes be affected after treatment for some types of head and neck cancer. Your medical team can give you more advice.

How treatment for head and neck cancer can affect your hearing

Treatment for some types of head and neck cancer, such as nasopharyngeal cancer. Hearing loss may start slowly in the first 2 years after treatment. 

Radiotherapy or the chemotherapy drug cisplatin may cause ringing in the ears (tinnitus). It often gets better as your ears recover from the effects of treatment. But it can sometimes be permanent. You may be referred to a tinnitus clinic to help you to manage it.

Your cancer specialist will tell you if there is a chance that treatment may affect your hearing.

Hearing loss

Hearing loss may sometimes come on gradually in the first 2 years after treatment.

Tell your cancer doctor or nurse if you have problems with your hearing. They can refer you to a hearing specialist called an audiologist, or an ENT (ear, nose and throat) doctor for an assessment and tests.

Treatments for hearing loss

Treatment will depend on the type and cause of your hearing loss. 

The small tube between the ear and the throat is known as the eustachian tube. This tube regulates air pressure in the ear. Sometimes it can become blocked after treatment. There are different ways to manage this. You may need a small operation.

If you have a build-up of fluid in your ear because of infection, your doctor can prescribe antibiotics to treat it.

Hearing loss may also be helped with hearing aids. Sometimes a cochlear implant may be an option if hearing loss is severe. You need an operation to put it in your ear. It uses electrical stimulation to provide sound.


Tinnitus is a sound you hear from inside your body rather than outside. It is often described as a ringing sound. But it can include other sounds such as buzzing, whistling, humming, whooshing or hissing. The sounds can be constant, or they can come and go.

Tinnitus is more noticeable when it is quiet. Using sound therapy can help to distract you. This could be having the radio on or an electric fan. There are devices specially designed to produce sounds for people with tinnitus. Relaxation techniques can also help as tinnitus is made worse by anxiety.

Your tinnitus clinic and The British Tinnitus Association can give you more information and advice.

Living with hearing changes

Getting used to changes in your hearing can take time, but support is available. Your hearing clinic can give you practical advice. You can also ask them about apps to help with hearing difficulties. There are also phones that can make sounds louder and help you to hear callers more easily. 

Some tips if you have hearing loss include the following:

  • Avoid background noise, such as TV or radio, when talking with people.
  • Find a well-lit place to have your conversation.
  • Tell people your hearing is not good.
  • Ask the person talking to you to face you, speak clearly and not too fast.
  • If in a group conversation, asking one person to tell you what has been said may help.

The following organisations provide information about living with hearing changes and tinnitus:

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our late effects of head and neck cancer treatment information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    Nilsen M L, Belsky MA et al. Late and long term treatment-related effects and survivorship for head and neck cancer patients. Current treatment options in oncology. 2020. Volume 21. Issue 12.

    Machiels J.-P, Leemans C. R. et al. Squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity, larynx, oropharynx and hypopharynx. EHNS-ESMO-ESTRO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of Oncology, 2020. Volume 31, Issue 11, Pages 1462-1475.

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Chris Alcock, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 April 2022
Next review: 01 April 2025
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.