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Drinking and hearing loss

Contributed by , staff writer for Healthy Hearing | Friday, January 16th, 2015

Cheers! There’s nothing like ushering in the New Year with a nice glass of bubbly, but beware; if you’re in the habit of celebrating with alcohol often, more than just your liver is at risk. Not only can excessive drinking shrink your brain, it can also put you at risk for developing hearing loss.  Here’s how… 

drinking and hearing loss
Resolving to abstain from or reduce
your drinking is a great resolution for
the new year. Alcohol effects not 
only your liver, but can put you at 
increased risk for developing hearing
loss, too. 

Excessive drinking damages the auditory cortex in the brain, causing it to shrink.

The auditory nerve is responsible for transferring the auditory information from the cochlea to the brain. That means that even though the ears may be functioning properly, the brain is unable to correctly process the sounds. 

Excessive drinking causes a toxic environment in the inner ear, which damages hair cells.

Those who have high levels of alcohol in their bloodstream create a toxic environment for the hair cells in the inner ear. These hair cells are responsible for translating the sounds your ears collect into electronic impulses the inner ear sends along the auditory nerve to the brain. These hair cells do not regenerate, meaning any damage incurred is irreversible.

Drinking can interfere with your vestibular system, creating problems with your balance.

Alcohol is absorbed into the fluid of the inner ear and stays there, even after it is no longer present in the blood and the brain. Because the inner ear monitors balance, this can cause vertigo along with spatial disorientation. This is often why people experience 'the spins' after a night of heavy drinking. 

Excessive drinkers may develop tinnitus.

Alcohol consumption makes your blood vessels swell, causing greater blood flow in the inner ear. When this happens, you may experience a ringing in the ears known as tinnitus. While this condition isn’t life threatening and often dissipates in a few hours, it can be extremely annoying.

Excessive drinkers may develop noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).

'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 (for clubs that allow smoking) 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.

Ready to quit?

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.

Excessive drinking also affects more than just your own health. Health experts believe that for every person with a drinking or drug problem, at least four other individuals are affected. That’s why most treatment programs involve the entire family.

This year, resolve to protect your hearing health by reducing your alcohol consumption. If you think you have a drinking problem, here’s where to get some help:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous: This worldwide fellowship of men and women are committed to helping each other stay sober.
  • Your family physician: Be honest with your doctor at your annual physical. He or she can evaluate your overall health and refer you to local programs designed to address alcohol abuse.
  • Your clergy: Your place of worship may know of a faith-based program in the community or provide counseling for you and your family.

Remember: if you need a hearing healthcare professional, search the Healthy Hearing directory to find a trusted professional in your community. 

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