We’ve long known that smoking is bad for your ears. But recently-published research has given us insight into just how damaging it can be. First appearing in the January 2022 edition of The Journal of the American Medical Association’s Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, the cross-sectional study is the product of three decades of work.

Association of Cigarette Smoking Patterns Over 30 Years With Audiometric Hearing Impairment and Speech-in-Noise Perception divided 3,414 participants into three groups:

  • Those who never smoked or stopped smoking before the study.
  • Those who stopped smoking during the study period.
  • Those who continued to smoke throughout the study.

“Persistent smoking was associated with a worse speech-frequency pure-tone average and Quick Speech-in-Noise test score,” the study reads. “The findings suggest that, compared with never or former smoking and quitting during the study period, persistent smoking may be associated with worse hearing impairment in older adults; thus, quitting smoking at any time may be beneficial for hearing health.”

It’s somewhat interesting that ex-smokers were placed in the same group as those who never smoked at all. But it’s perhaps even more interesting that former smokers scored noticeably higher on hearing tests than those who continued to smoke throughout the study. Even those who quit over the course of the study saw a noticeable improvement.

It’s also worth noting that the study also found that secondhand smoke potentially has just as much of an adverse effect.

Non-smokers living with a smoker during the study were found to be twice as likely to acquire hearing loss compared to those who were never exposed to secondhand smoke. This is consistent with other research on the topic. Studies have found that, among other things, exposure to secondhand smoke can also further the progression of cigarette-related hearing loss. Secondhand smoke has also been identified as harmful to adolescents, potentially tripling their risk of developing sensorineural hearing loss.

Cigarettes and Your Ears

How and why do cigarettes have such a pronounced effect on hearing health?

  • They reduce blood oxygen levels and constrict blood vessels throughout the body, which can damage the sensitive organs of the inner ear.
  • They may interfere with auditory neurotransmitters and the auditory nerve.
  • They can irritate the middle ear lining and Eustachian tube.
  • Chemicals contained in many cigarettes known as free radicals can, in the worst-case scenario, damage the smoker’s DNA.

There is also some evidence to suggest that cigarettes may cause tinnitus, either directly or as a precursor to hearing impairment. Moreover, because smoking affects the immune system, it may potentially increase the frequency of ear infections. Perhaps worst of all, however, is exposure to cigarette smoke, either directly or second-hand, can cause a range of severe and debilitating conditions amongst infants and children:

  • Asthma attacks.
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Miscarriages/infant death if smoking during pregnancy.
  • Lung infections.
  • Ear infections.
  • Increased risk of hearing loss at birth.

Hearing Health Isn’t The Only Reason to Stop Smoking

If you’re thinking of quitting smoking, you might be interested to know that dropping cigarettes improves far more than just your hearing. According to the American Lung Association and Healthline, even two days without cigarettes can improve your heart rate, blood pressure, and ability to smell and taste. Two weeks to three months after quitting, your risk of suffering a heart attack also drops.

Other benefits, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, include:

  • Reduced chance of lung cancer
  • Reduced infertility
  • Reduced chance of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Reduced chance of cardiovascular disease, peripheral vascular disease, and stroke
  • Improved breathing and lessened respiratory symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

If you’re ready to quit smoking but aren’t certain where to begin, contact a healthcare professional for help creating a plan. And as always, don’t forget to schedule an appointment with an audiologist. Smoking isn’t the only thing that can impact your hearing, after all.