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Does alcohol affect hearing?

Excessive drinking has been linked to hearing damage, tinnitus, and other hearing-related health problems.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Jessica Hinson


May 20, 2024

Two women drinking wine. Two women drinking wine.

The 3 key takeaways

  • Alcohol affects every organ in the body — The liver can only process so much alcohol at one time. If you drink enough, the excess alcohol is left to freely circulate your body.
  • It’s a risk factor for hearing loss — Studies have shown that alcohol consumption can cause short and long-term damage to hearing systems in the ears and brain.
  • “Cocktail deafness” is real — People can experience a form of temporary hearing damage after ingesting alcohol that makes loud noises more tolerable.

It’s widely known that alcohol consumption impairs the parts of the brain responsible for memory, speech, and judgment — but what about our hearing? If you’ve ever been to a loud party and found the volume more tolerable the more you drank, you’ve experienced the phenomenon known as “cocktail deafness” first-hand. To understand why this happens, we need to look at the science behind alcohol-related hearing damage.

How alcohol affects hearing

Chronic alcohol consumption damages the parts of the body responsible for picking up and translating external sounds, including the auditory cortex in the brain and the hair cells in the inner ear. Drinking has also been linked to other hearing-related conditions like dizziness and tinnitus.

Drinking alcohol can damage auditory hair cells

Auditory hair cells are the tiny hairs in your inner ear responsible for translating the sounds in your environment into nerve impulses, which are then sent to the brain for processing via the auditory brainstem. Studies suggest that alcohol use permanently damages these hair cells, preventing them from properly regrowing or repairing themselves.

Excessive drinking can shrink your auditory cortex

The auditory cortex is the part of the brain that processes and interprets sounds. When functioning correctly, the ears send music, speech, and other external signals here so you’re able to recognize them as meaningful sounds. Alcohol reduces blood flow to the brain, which in turn causes the auditory cortex to shrink.

When this happens, your brain can lose its ability to properly process sounds, which means you may not be able to understand them even if your ears are picking them up. Patients with auditory cortex damage report symptoms including increased difficulty filtering out background noise, difficulty understanding speech (especially when spoken rapidly), and trouble distinguishing between certain sounds and voices.

Temporary “cocktail deafness”

Alcohol use disorder may cause a short-term impairment of one’s hearing ability. This phenomenon is fittingly referred to as “cocktail deafness.” A study of UK young adults found the participants had more difficulty hearing low-frequency sounds after drinking. Hearing returned to normal once they stopped drinking, though some research suggests that regular spells of alcohol-induced hearing loss can result in permanent hearing damage.

Heavy drinking can lead to tinnitus

Mixed evidence suggests that heavy alcohol use can intensify the severity of tinnitus symptoms. This occurs because alcohol causes the blood vessels in the ears to expand, resulting in increased blood flow that may be accompanied by a persistent ringing tone.  Alcohol-induced tinnitus usually goes away on its own after a few hours, though some patients concurrently experience dizziness, too.

👉 Fun Fact: Mild red wine consumption can actually improve hearing due to the concentration of resveratrol in the wine. Resveratrol can also be found in grape juice, peanuts, blueberries, and cranberries.

Drinking alcohol and dizziness

It’s quite common for people to experience the sensation of dizziness or imbalance after a heavy night of drinking. This is yet another result of alcohol’s effect on the ears.

When alcohol is circulating through the body, a small portion is absorbed into the inner ear fluid, where it remains longer than it normally would in the bloodstream.  This change can result in episodes of vertigo, dizziness, and spatial disorientation. This is the reason some people experience “the spins” after heavy drinking and why drinking affects motor functions like walking and driving.

👉 People who suffer from hearing and balance disorders may be able to relieve their dizzy spells by making a few simple dietary changes

You don’t need to swear off alcohol altogether to maintain good hearing health, but excessive drinking should be avoided at all costs. It’s not just bad for your ears — it damages your entire body. If you’re concerned with your current drinking habits, there are many resources available to you for help. Discuss any and all health concerns with your doctor, and schedule an appointment with a licensed hearing care specialist if you suspect alcohol might be affecting your hearing.

Frequently asked questions

Why does my hearing feel weird after drinking? 

You’re not imagining things — something is different about your hearing after drinking. This is referred to as “cocktail deafness,” a condition that results in higher auditory thresholds and difficulty hearing lower frequencies. Effects usually subside a few hours after you stop drinking, but chronic drinking can result in permanent damage.

Does alcohol affect my hearing? 

Yes. Alcohol affects every single organ in your body, including the systems in your ears and brain that facilitate hearing. Excessive alcohol consumption can damage the auditory hair cells in the inner ear and the auditory cortex in the brain. It can also cause other hearing and balance disorders such as tinnitus, dizziness, and vertigo.

Is the hearing loss caused by alcohol permanent or temporary? 

It depends. One-time alcohol consumption can cause a temporary form of hearing loss known as “cocktail deafness,” which clears up a few hours after drinking. On the other hand, chronic alcohol use can result in permanent damage to the inner ear and brain.

What steps can be taken to prevent or recover from hearing damage caused by alcohol use? 

An easy way to prevent the short-term hearing effects of alcohol is to simply abstain from drinking. If you have permanent hearing loss brought on by heavy drinking, we recommend consulting an audiologist on available treatment options, particularly hearing aids.

Will my tinnitus go away if I stop drinking alcohol? 

It depends on the underlying cause. Short-term tinnitus brought on by alcohol consumption usually goes away on its own a few hours after you stop drinking. However, if you suffer from chronic tinnitus related to permanent hearing loss, your symptoms will persist whether or not you stop drinking.