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Drinking and Hearing Loss

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a cocktail with friends once in awhile, but if you’re in the habit of drinking excessively, beware. Your hearing health may be at risk.

In fact, your brain may be shrinking. Researchers believe excessive drinking may damage the auditory cortex in the brain, causing it to shrink. That means that even though the ears may be functioning properly, the brain is unable to correctly process the sounds.

As a matter of fact, those who suffer from alcoholism may be damaging their ears, too, according to health experts. Alcohol creates a toxic environment in the inner ear, damaging the delicate hair cells in the cochlea responsible for detecting sound. And once those hair cells are damaged, they cannot be regenerated. Additionally, those who drink excessively often develop a greater sensitivity to loud noise, making them more susceptible to developing noise-induced hearing loss.

And since alcohol makes your blood vessels swell causing greater blood flow, excessive drinkers may experience a condition known as pulsatile tinnitus – or ringing in the ears. While this condition isn’t life-threatening, it can be extremely annoying.

How much alcohol is too much? The longer and more excessively you drink, the worse the damage. Researchers found greater hearing loss among older individuals with a history of heavy drinking. Since damage to the auditory nerve is cumulative, some studies indicate even moderate drinkers risk damaging their hearing health.

In a 2011 National Institutes of Health publication, a light drinker was defined as consuming between one and 13 drinks each month, a moderate drinker consuming between four and 14 drinks each week and a heavy drinker consuming more than two drinks each day.

Is the damage reversible? It depends. Cocktail Deafness is a term coined by hearing health professionals to explain the noise-induced hearing loss that can occur in a crowded bar or nightclub. As the evening progresses and individuals consume more alcohol, they frequently begin talking louder. Sometimes the volume of the music increases, too.  Hearing typically returns to normal the next day; however, prolonged exposure to this environment can result in permanent damage. That’s because exposure to nicotine and noises louder than 85 decibels (dB) are also ototoxic – or damaging to the organs and nerves connected with hearing and balance. When all three conditions are present -- excessive drinking, prolonged exposure to cigarette smoke and noise levels over 85 dB – the combination can be lethal to your hearing health.

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