Recreational alcohol use is big business in the United States, but could our obsession with wine, beer, and craft cocktails be doing more damage than we realize?
According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 86.4% of people ages 18 or older shared that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime; 70.1% shared that they drank in the last year; 56.0% shared that they drank in the last month.
While many health experts say that moderate alcohol consumption is generally safe, it can still pose a risk to health. This is especially true when consumption is not moderate as with alcohol use disorder. In these cases, there can be an increased risk of high blood pressure and stroke, liver damage, decreased bone density, digestive issues, and even hearing loss.
Alcohol and hearing loss
Once considered a relatively harmless pastime, drinking alcohol is now coming into focus as a risky choice. More and more health experts are weighing the pros and cons and digging deeper into how alcohol really affects us beyond a quick buzz. New research is shining light on how alcohol, specifically excessive use of it, can damage hearing in more ways than one.
Auditory nerve – Hearing sound is a multi-step process that involves capturing sound with the ear, converting those sounds into vibrations in the inner ear, and then translating those vibrations into what we understand as sound for the brain. This translation of vibrations into an understanding of sound is all thanks to the auditory nerve. Unfortunately, according to research from the University of Ulm, excessive or long-term alcohol use may lead to damage to the auditory nerve. This can lead to delayed processing and difficulty understanding sound.
Inner ear hair cells – Excessive drinking, especially regularly as with alcohol use disorder, has also been linked to permanently damaged hair cells in the inner ear. These cells are crucial in capturing sound and turning it into vibrations. Once they are damaged, they cannot be regenerated, and hearing loss at specific frequencies is the result.
Inner ear fluid – Alcohol doesn’t just affect the brain and hair cells of the inner ear; it can also affect the fluid of the inner ear leading to vertigo (dizziness). As alcohol is absorbed into the body and bloodstream, it is also absorbed into this fluid and remains here long after its effects have worn off elsewhere.
Tinnitus – This ringing or buzzing in the ears can be a side effect of excessive drinking thanks to alcohol’s effect on blood pressure. As it raises blood pressure in the blood vessels of the inner ear, it can also cause tinnitus. This side effect may be short term or with alcohol use disorder, a long term symptom.
As more of the effects of drinking and alcohol use disorder come to light, experts warn that even moderate, regular drinking may pose a risk to hearing health.
If you believe your hearing has been negatively impacted by alcohol consumption or alcohol use disorder, contact your health practitioner, hearing health provider or ENT to learn more.