A recent Japanese study suggests that people who smoke may be at a higher risk for hearing loss than non-smokers. 50,000 Japanese workers aged 20 to 64 who did not have hearing loss at the outset of the study were followed for up to eight years, with hearing tests performed annually. The participants were asked about their smoking status (current, former, or never), the number of cigarettes they smoked each day, and the amount of time since they had stopped smoking, if any. 3532 individuals developed high-frequency hearing loss and 1575 developed low-frequency hearing loss. The risk of both types of hearing loss increased proportionally to the number of cigarettes smoked per day. There was also a 1.2 to 1.6 times increased risk of hearing loss among those who were current smokers. The elevated risk of hearing loss declined within five years of quitting smoking.
An earlier study, conducted in 1998 in the United States and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that smokers are almost 70 percent more likely than non-smokers to suffer hearing loss. 25.9 percent of smokers ages 48 to 59 had hearing loss as a result of their smoking, whereas only 16.1 percent of non-smokers had decreased hearing. 22.7 percent of the people who had smoked at some point in the past had hearing loss. The results were much the same in older participants.
That same 1998 study found that even secondhand smoke can affect hearing. Non-smokers living in the same house as someone who did smoke determined to be 1.94 times more likely to suffer from hearing loss than people in smoke-free homes. This is particularly problematic in households with children, as the auditory system isn’t even fully developed until late adolescence.
What actually causes the hearing loss? The nicotine and carbon monoxide that are ingested while smoking tightens blood vessels, including the ones in your ears. Not only is blood flow to the ear decreased, but so is the amount of oxygen reaching the inner ear. There is an organ in the inner ear called the cochlea, which contains thousands of very small hair cells. These hair cells are responsible for converting sound waves into a type of electrical signal that is then interpreted by the brain. Lack of oxygen to the inner ear can asphyxiate these hair cells. Once one of these cells dies, it can never grow back, and the decrease in signals being sent to the brain leads to problems with hearing.
Nicotine can also affect the neurotransmitters in the auditory nerve, which is what actually passes the neural signals to the brain. Damage to these neurotransmitters means the brain has a hard time interpreting exactly what kind of sound you’re hearing.
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