Drinking and hearing loss: Know the risks


Contributed by Debbie Clason, staff writer, Healthy Hearing
Last updated 2019-11-15T00:00:00-06:00

Not only can alcohol use disorder lead to the development of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, it can also put you at risk for developing hearing loss. Here’s how…

Drinking and brain health

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 heavy 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.

Alcohol’s effect on hearing

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 alcohol use disorder 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.

hazy bar scene and martinis
Excessive drinking can compromise your

hearing and balance.

Problems with dizziness and tinnitus

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. 

According to the Vestibular Disorders Association, alcohol changes the volume and composition of fluid in the inner ear, which can cause dizziness and imbalance as well as hearing loss.

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? A person may be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder if they have these symptoms.

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 people are affected. That’s why many treatment programs involve family.  

If you want to seek treatment for your drinking, the National Institutes of Health has an in-depth page on solutions (as the NIH says, you might be surprised to learn there are far more options than just AA meetings or in-patient rehab).

Even if you don’t abuse alcohol, cutting down can improve your health and help preserve the hearing you have. 

If you already have hearing loss, or want to get tested to find out if you do, use our directory to find a hearing clinic near you.

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