Gentamicin ototoxicity: a 23-year selected case series of 103 patients

Rebekah M Ahmed, Imelda P Hannigan, Hamish G MacDougall, Raymond C Chan and G Michael Halmagyi
Med J Aust 2012; 196 (11): 701-704. || doi: 10.5694/mja11.10850


Objective: To review patients with severe bilateral vestibular loss associated with gentamicin treatment in hospital.

Design and setting: A retrospective case series of presentations to a balance disorders clinic between 1988 and 2010.

Main outcome measures: Relationship between vestibulotoxicity and gentamicin dose or dosing profile; indications for prescribing gentamicin.

Results: 103 patients (age, 18–84 years; mean, 64 years) presented with imbalance, oscillopsia or both, but none had vertigo. Only three noted some hearing impairment after having gentamicin, but audiometric thresholds for all patients were consistent with their age. In all patients, the following tests gave positive results: a bilateral clinical head-impulse test, a vertical head-shaking test for vertical oscillopsia, and a foam Romberg test. In 21 patients, imbalance occurred during gentamicin treatment (ignored or dismissed by prescribers in 20) and in 66 after treatment; the remaining 16 could not recall when symptoms were first noticed, except that it was after gentamicin treatment in hospital. Total gentamicin dose range was 2–318 mg/kg (mean, 52 mg/kg), daily dose range was 1.5–5.6 mg/kg (mean, 3.5 mg/kg), and duration was 1–80 days (mean, 17 days). Six patients had only a single dose; 26 had five or fewer doses. Serum gentamicin levels, measured in 82 patients, were in the recommended range in 59. Time to diagnosis ranged from 4 days to 15 years. Nephrotoxicity developed in 43 patients. Gentamicin dosage complied with contemporary or current Australian antibiotic guidelines in under half the patients.

Conclusions: Gentamicin ototoxicity is vestibular, not cochlear, producing permanent loss of balance, but not of hearing. Gentamicin can be vestibulotoxic in any dose, in any regimen, at any serum level.

  • Rebekah M Ahmed1
  • Imelda P Hannigan1
  • Hamish G MacDougall2
  • Raymond C Chan1
  • G Michael Halmagyi1

  • 1 Department of Neurology, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, NSW.
  • 2 Vestibular Research Laboratory, School of Psychology, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW.



We thank Dr Richard Benn for helpful discussions over many years and Dr Vicki Levidiotis for reviewing the manuscript. The study was supported by Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams Memorial Foundation (Hamish MacDougall) and National Health and Medical Research Council Grant 245515 (Michael Halmagyi).

Competing interests:

Michael Halmagyi and Hamish MacDougall have acted as unpaid consultants for GN Otometrics.

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