by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

Kissing causes hearing loss? You’ve got to be kidding!

Actually, it’s true. Not all kissing, mind you, but kissing someone on their ear can be dangerous to their hearing health. Here’s the incident that brought this fact to light.

A mother and her 4-year-old daughter were sitting on the floor watching TV. Impulsively the child hugged her mom and vigorously kissed her. Unfortunately, the kiss landed directly on the opening to the mother’s left ear canal.

This sudden (and considerable) suction applied negative pressure to the ear drum. (1) As the mother related, “While she was doing it, it felt like she was sucking the air out of my head.” (3) “When she finished, I had no hearing in that ear.” In addition to the total hearing loss, “she had a very intense screeching tinnitus. She had a lot of facial twitching, muscular twitching and pain.” (2)

Fortunately, most of her hearing returned a few hours later, but she was left with a permanent 35 dB hearing loss in the lower frequencies, “screeching tinnitus” that later subsided to a permanent soft rushing sound, hyperacusis (normal sounds are now too loud—”any loud sound would jostle her and send her through the roof”) (2), dysacusis (distorted hearing) and facial twitching. (3)

About a year later, she contacted Dr. Levi Reiter, professor and head of the Audiology program, at Hofstra University in New York. Dr. Reiter’s testing revealed that she had no auditory reflex in that ear any more. The auditory reflex is where the tiny stapedius muscle (actually the smallest muscle in the human body) contracts and pulls the tiny stapes (or stirrup) (the smallest bone in the human body) away from the oval window to reduce the volume of sudden loud sounds. (2)

In addition, “she had another interesting symptom, whenever she would turn her head from side to side, it felt like something was loose in her middle ear.” (2)

Further investigation by Dr. Reiter indicated that what likely had happened was that the ligament that fastened the stapedius muscle to the stapes had ripped apart, leaving her with a non-functioning auditory reflex in that ear. Since the auditory reflex could no longer dampen louder sounds, she was left with permanent hyperacusis.

Interestingly enough, this mother only experienced sensorineural hearing loss. There was no conductive loss whatsoever. You would have thought the middle ear bones would have been dislocated causing a conductive loss, but nothing of the sort happened (apart from the ligament on the stapedius muscle being ripped apart—which doesn’t cause hearing loss).

Initially the press reported this event as the “Kiss of Deaf”, but due to Dr. Reiter’s ongoing research in this area, this phenomenon is now going by the moniker of “Reiter’s Ear-Kiss Syndrome” (REKS).

Ever since the first reports came out in the media, Dr. Reiter has been receiving calls and emails from people all over the country who also have experienced hearing loss from a kiss on the ear. (4) Rather than it being a strange and unique occurrence, Dr. Reiter told me that REKS is much more common than it first appeared to be.

He emphasizes that you must never kiss anyone on their ears, or let them kiss you there. (Nibbling on someone’s ears is an entirely different matter!) He writes: “My biggest concern as far as warning the public and getting this out is regarding newborns and infants. Mothers and fathers, and even sisters and brothers and grandparents love to smooch up that little baby—give him a whole kissing frenzy.” (2)

Note that this may be especially true when little children try to kiss a baby sibling. They aren’t discerning where they kiss, and may forcefully kiss them on their ear. (Adults may inadvertently do this too.)

Dr. Reiter continues, “The ear canal of an infant is very small, so that negative pressure you’re applying to the ear canal is going to have a much greater impact than on an adult. I’m afraid there are infants out there who are experiencing this, but they can’t say ‘Mommy, I can’t hear in one ear,’ and the net result is that five years later, when they have a hearing test, no one will know to relate it to this.” (2) Therefore, for the sake of everyone’s ears, confine smooching to other parts of the body.

If you have had any hearing loss or other ear problems resulting from a kiss on your ear, Dr. Reiter would love to hear from you for his ongoing research into this phenomenon. His email address is ears@drreiter.net.
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(1) “The Kiss of Deaf”: A Case Study by Levi A. Reiter. The Hearing Journal. August 2008. Vol. 61, No. 8. pp. 32-37.

(2) Interview with Levi Reiter, Ph.D., CCC-A, Professor of Audiology, Hofstra University. Topic: The Kiss That Caused Hearing Loss, or Reiter’s Ear Kiss Syndrome (REKS). 7/28/2008.

(3) Little Girl Gives Mom Kiss Of Deaf. Hearing Review, The Insider. July 31, 2008.

(4) Ear Kiss Causes Rare Syndrome by Dee Naquin Shafer, the ASHA Leader. August 12, 2008.