by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

A man wrote:

I have a question regarding alcohol. I recently visited an audiologist about my tinnitus after it got worse from a clubbing experience (first time it happened due to a club). I wore ear plugs and figured I’d be safe. She seemed convinced it was due the copious amounts of alcohol I consumed. She said that alcohol is very bad for my ears and that I should limit my drinks.

Like an idiot, I ignored her advice the next week and my tinnitus did get worse despite wearing some new, more powerful ear plugs (32 db of protection)! According to her, it was the combination of loud music + daily, noisy city life + alcohol that did it.

However, after reading your web log link to the Norway study of pre-school teachers having hearing damage from loud kids, I figured that may be why. I’m a newly-minted elementary teacher. I was hired to focus on the conversation aspect of English education here, so day in and out it’s 30 kids speaking loudly and screaming for at least 3+ hours a day. So now I’m wearing 10 dB ear protection!

Nevertheless, I wonder if the audiologist was still right. I’m gonna lay off the drinks anyway. I would like to know if alcohol can lower the threshold for hearing damage or lead to permanent damage. Is the fact that I’m drinking in a club that much more dangerous and could possibly lead to more tinnitus?

Just so you know, alcohol alone can cause tinnitus. Noise alone can cause tinnitus. So can many other factors. You were wise in wearing ear protection. However, I don’t know the sound levels in the clubs you visited. Ear protectors can only help about 30 dB or so. After that, the sound travels through your skull via bone conduction and assaults your inner ears in spite of any ear protection you may be wearing.

Thus for example, if the sound level in the club was way up there at 120 dB. Your inner ears were still being exposed to around 90 dB of sound. In this case the ear protectors were bringing it down 30 dB, but 90 dB is still too loud and can cause damage given enough time.

You would not expect 90 dB to cause much damage in just one long evening at a club. However, there were other less known factors coming into play too. For example, I’m assuming that the club was also filled with smoke, right? Breathing in that second hand smoke (or first hand if you were smoking too) exposes you to significant amounts of nicotine.

One of nicotine’s nefarious characteristics is that it works together with loud noise in a synergistic fashion to cause more damage to your ears than you would expect from noise alone or nicotine alone. Thus, even with wearing ear protectors, the presence of smoke could make your ears more sensitive to noise damage at the reduced level of noise that you thought wouldn’t damage your ears.

Carbon monoxide has the same nefarious characteristic, and in smoke filled rooms, there is more carbon monoxide than normal too.

In addition, for example, maybe you get headaches from all the noise at the club so you take a couple of aspirin. Guess what? Aspirin lowers the noise tolerance that your ears can stand before damage, just like nicotine and carbon monoxide do.

Thus you have the effects of alcohol, noise, nicotine and carbon monoxide, and maybe some pain killers—each of them ototoxic in their own right and causing damage to your ears. Then you have the synergistic effects of noise and nicotine and the synergistic effects of noise and carbon monoxide, etc. That is just some of the things your ears are dealing with in the clubs. All these little things can add up to cause big problems for your ears.

On top of that you have all the noise and exposure to drugs and chemicals that also can damage your ears in your day to day living apart from clubs. And on top of that still is all the noise you are exposed to as a pre-school teacher. (Can’t you get the kids to pipe down? It shouldn’t be that noisy or the kids are going to have hearing problems too!)

So putting it all together, I’m not surprised that your ears have taken a beating. If you value your health and your ears, you’ll cut way down on your alcohol consumption and noisy clubbing too.

If you are interested in learning more about what you can do to help bring your tinnitus under your control, you would do well to read my book, “When Your Ears Ring! Cope With Your Tinnitus—Here’s How“.