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How Smoking & Drinking May Affect Hearing

In 2022, most of us are generally concerned about how to promote our best health and well-being. We try to eat right, exercise, avoid substances that harm us, get enough sleep, and generally try to do things that make us feel like we’re in good health!   But we also like to unwind from time to time! Most of us enjoy the occasional alcoholic beverage, and some people may still smoke cigarettes. As a hearing health organization, we’re interested in what, if any, effect these substances have on our health and hearing ability!

Smoking

Smoking is quite simply an incredibly unhealthy habit! Through repeated studies, smoking has been shown to cause cancers of the lungs and other parts of the body, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and even arthritis. Those who smoke, even if they don’t have acute illnesses related to smoking, generally have lower health, compromised immune systems and decreased energy levels compared to non-smokers. Smoking is responsible for one out of five deaths in the United States. If you are a smoker, quitting now reduces serious threats to your health and well-being!

Smoking and Hearing Loss

As if there were not enough health-related reasons to quit smoking, we can add hearing loss to the list. According to a study published in Nicotine and Tobacco Research, smoking 10 cigarettes per day increases the risk of high-frequency hearing loss by 40%, and low-frequency hearing loss by 10%. At 20 cigarettes per day, the increased risk of high-frequency hearing loss increases to 70%, and low-frequency hearing loss to 40%.   This finding is consistent with other studies that have been done on smoking and hearing loss. The first study on smoking and hearing loss was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 1998. It, too, determined that the risk of hearing loss increased with the number of cigarettes smoked per day.   A study from 2004 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, however, found no correlation between smoking and hearing loss. This study does seem to be an outlier, as many studies since that time have confirmed that hearing loss and smoking do seem tied.

How Smoking Causes Hearing Loss

Nicotine is a vasoconstrictor (it makes the blood vessels smaller), and smoking also deprives the body of oxygen. The tiny structures responsible for hearing, in the inner ear, are fed by very tiny blood vessels. It makes sense that a drug which constricts blood vessels and reduces oxygen content would have an adverse impact on hearing!   Cigarette smoke is also full of lots of other nasty chemicals, many of which are known to be ototoxic (poisonous to the ear). Some may harm the ear directly, or indirectly by additional blood-related effects.

Alcohol and Hearing Loss

When it comes to alcohol, studies are less conclusive. Some have demonstrated that 1–2 alcoholic beverages per day can actually decrease the risk of hearing loss, while others have shown that any amount of alcohol is likely harmful. Whatever the case may be, the positive effects of alcohol on hearing ability are easily achievable by other means, such as drinking chamomile tea. We don’t have to drink to hear well!   Alcohol may affect hearing by two different means: harming the ear directly, or harming the brain. Since our brain is where sound is actually interpreted, any damage to the auditory cortex (the part responsible for sound interpretation) is just as bad as direct damage to our ears… And maybe worse! Hearing aids can help you hear better if the problem is in your ears, but not if it’s in your brain!   A study from the University of Ulm in Germany found a connection between heavy drinking and the kind of brain damage that affects hearing ability. You have to drink a lot for a long time in order for this to become an issue, but it is possible. Very heavy drinking can also result in direct damage to the ears, where the elevated level of alcohol in the blood can kill the delicate structures in the inner ear.   A British study also found that excessive alcohol consumption caused temporary hearing loss. The more alcohol that was ingested, the greater the temporary hearing loss became. These researchers noted that excessive consumption could lead to permanent hearing loss in the long term, as well.

The Takeaway

While more research is needed to demonstrate anything conclusive, it seems very likely that smoking contributes substantially to hearing loss. Any amount of smoking at all is never a good idea, and if we smoke, we should quit!   Alcohol causes us to lose hearing ability temporarily, while we are under its influence. This might not seem like such a bad thing, but it also seems that excessive drinking can likely contribute to permanent hearing loss, even in the form of brain damage. While it may be the case that a very small amount of alcohol might actually promote hearing health, regular drinking seems likely to harm us. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, reach out to a Colorado Addiction Counselor. If you or a loved one may have hearing loss, make an appointment for a hearing test today and take charge of your hearing health!

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