How Smoking & Drinking May Affect Hearing

How Smoking & Drinking May Affect Hearing

Bary E. Williams, Au.D.

Born with hearing loss, Dr. Bary struggled in his early life to be completely engaged in the world around him. He obtain his masters and eventually his doctorate in audiology while working on the front lines as a hearing aid specialist during the day. Dr. Bary has been in practice for over 30 years and has worked for several of the largest hearing aid manufacturers.
Bary E. Williams, Au.D.

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Understanding How Hearing Works

Your ears are totally developed from the moment you are born. In fact, you are able to respond to sounds before birth even takes place. So, how does hearing work?

Your ear has three parts: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. Your outer ear is made up of your pinna and ear canal. The pinna is the part of your ear that you can visibly look at on the sides of your head, and it is made up of cartilage and soft tissue, not bone. Sounds come through the pinna and then travel down your ear canal. The pinna helps you to recognize which direction sounds originate from.

Your middle ear starts at the end of your ear canal. It has three tiny bones in it, and these tiny bones are called ossicles. Ossicles form a chain from the eardrum to the inner ear, vibrating in different ways in the eardrum when sound comes in, depending upon pitch. This vibration sends a signal to the inner ear.

Your inner ear creates hearing and balance. The cochlea is the hearing part of the inner ear, and the semicircular canals are a major part of your balance system.

The cochlea looks akin to a snail, with fluid and hair cells inside of it. When the bones in your middle ear move, the fluid in your inner ear moves, thereby triggering hair cell movement, which, in turn, changes the movement into electrical signals.

The brain understands these electrical signals as sounds. Your brain then works to decode what those particular sounds mean.

Drinking and Smoking Related to Hearing Loss

Hearing loss can occur from many different illnesses, including chicken pox, mumps, toxic medications, and the flu. In some cases, hearing loss is acquired due to behaviors rather than illnesses, such as smoking and alcohol use. Cigarette smoking has become a popular habit with 1.3 billion smokers worldwide.

Still, most of tobacco’s damage to the human health is not evident until years or even decades after its initial use. One of its damaging effects is its effects on the senses, including hearing. Smokers are 1.69 times as likely to have hearing loss as normal non-smokers. Other studies, which were conducted in Japan and Korea, also came up with similar evidence of an association between hearing loss and smoking.

Another cause of hearing loss is with alcohol consumption. Studies have shown that high alcohol consumption over an extended period of time can result in damage to the central auditory cortex of the brain and may even lead to the brain shrinking. Alcohol researchers from the University of Ulm in Germany conducted a test for both heavy and social drinkers’ BAEP levels, or Brainstem Auditory Evoked Potentials, by testing the amount of brain damage in the part of the brain that allows you to hear. The results indicated a significant correlation between alcohol consumption and hearing loss. Since the damage done to the auditory nerves is cumulative, even those who are moderate drinkers may still risk severe nerve damage and hearing loss.

Although many alcohol researchers believe that drinking may result in brain damage, the quantity of alcohol and the length of time needed to cause said brain damage remains a mystery. So, despite the ears functioning optimally, the brain is no longer able to process the sounds, thereby resulting in hearing loss due to alcohol. Those who suffer from alcoholism likely have damage within their ears. The level of alcohol in their bloodstream creates a toxic environment that damages delicate hair cells in the cochlea, creating a condition known as ototoxicity.

A British study shows that alcohol paired with noise can cause temporary hearing loss. All participants in the study were found to have temporary hearing loss. It was concluded that regular ingestion of alcohol may lead to permanent hearing loss down the road. This study also provided a clear indication that older subjects and those with a history of heavy alcohol consumption were more affected as well.

The researchers posited that the larger the quantity of alcohol ingested, the worse the hearing loss. Hearing of low frequency sounds, like the ones made in speech, were most affected. For these reasons, getting regular testing is important.

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