Drinking and hearing loss
Cheers! There’s nothing like your favorite cocktail to celebrate the good life with friends and family. 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 lead to the development of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, but it may surprise you to know it can also put you at risk for developing hearing loss. Here’s how…
Effects on the brain
Excessive drinking damages the auditory cortex in the brain, affecting the way your brain processes sound. The auditory nerve is responsible for transferring the auditory information from the sounds we hear in the cochlea of the inner ear to the brain where they are translated. So, even though the ears may be functioning properly, the brain may be unable to correctly process the sounds.
A study by German researchers at the University of Ulm discovered that excessive drinking over a long period of time damages the central auditory cortex, increasing the time it takes to process sound. That means you might have trouble hearing people who speak quickly, or distinguishing one voice or sound from another in environments where there is a lot of background noise.
Effect on the ears
Excessive drinking causes a toxic environment in the inner ear. The inner ear houses tiny hair cells responsible for translating the sounds your ears collect into electronic impulses the inner ear sends along the auditory nerve to the brain. The toxicity created in the inner ear by excessive alcohol damages and destroys the hair cells, and they do not regenerate. Because the damage is permanent, so too is the resulting hearing loss.
A study of young adults in London revealed that heavy drinking leads to problems understanding lower frequency sounds. This condition is also known appropriately as "cocktail deafness." Although hearing returned to normal among study participants once they stopped drinking, researchers theorize that frequent episodes of alcohol-induced hearing loss may lead to permanent damage.
Anyone who has had the experience of overindulging during a night of drinking knows firsthand that drinking can create problems with your balance and make you feel dizzy and out of sorts.
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, and it can sometimes be enough for any fun-loving drinker to swear off alcohol forever.
As if that's not enough, the dizziness you experience when you've had one too many can be accompanied by tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. The tinnitus happens when alcohol causes blood vessels swell resulting in greater blood flow within the inner ear. While this condition isn’t life-threatening and often dissipates in a few hours, it can be extremely annoying.
Ready to quit?
So, how much alcohol is too much? 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. If your own well-being isn't enough to inspire you to make a change in your life, think about your children, your partner, your friends and your colleagues.
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 get and 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.
Even if you're not a problem drinker, cutting down can improve your health and help preserve the hearing you have. As with most things, occasional decadence isn't harmful as long as you practice moderation and common sense. If you already have a hearing loss from any cause, see a hearing healthcare provider such as one listed in the Healthy Hearing directory to find a trusted professional in your community.