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Does Coffee Affect Tinnitus or Hearing Loss?

Surprisingly, coffee may have a beneficial effect on tinnitus, but it might be a good idea to give it a miss after a concert

This is the very first article from Kathy Gallo, a new contributor to the blog. Kathy is a fellow coffee lover and she is a regular writer about the dark arts of perfect coffee. She had noticed some research on coffee and health effects recently, specifically coffee and its effect on tinnitus and hearing health. So she decided to write us an article about it. It's an interesting read and in fact, completely reversed my accepted thinking on coffee and tinnitus. Have a read, it is worth it. 

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Drinking coffee was once considered something of a vice almost akin to smoking that we should try to cut down or give up. However, in recent years, research has increasingly revealed that, on the contrary, coffee – and especially caffeine – is full of health benefits.

We now know that coffee can increase our concentration, improve our performance in sport, help fight against certain cancers and help prevent Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. There are many more – the list goes on.

What about the effect of the beverage on hearing? Well, we have good news for coffee lovers and bad. Let’s have a look at both.

First, the good news

While very little research has been carried out on the effects of coffee on hearing, one study published in the American Journal of Medicine looked at a group of 65,085 women over an 18 year period.
The study sought to investigate whether there was any link between caffeine consumption and the onset of tinnitus, a chronic and sometimes debilitating ringing in the ears. As the report mentions, there has long been a suspected connection.

The results were clear: the regular consumption of higher doses of caffeine was shown to have a correlation with a lower likelihood of developing the condition. 

Coffee may protect you from the onset of tinnitus

Specifically, compared to those who consumed less than 150mg per day, the subjects who consumed 450-599mg per day were found to have a 15% decrease in the likelihood of developing the condition. For those consuming 600mg per day, the figure was a 21% lower likelihood.

The source of the caffeine in the study was not specifically coffee and also included cola drinks, tea and chocolate, all common sources of caffeine. However, of these, the caffeine content of coffee is the highest. As a rough estimate, we can say that a regular caffeinated coffee contains around 80-150mg of caffeine, meaning to reach the 600mg category, you would need to be consuming up to six or more cups per day.

While the generally accepted guideline for safe caffeine consumption is usually quoted as around 400mg per day, at least as far as the risk of developing tinnitus is concerned, even higher levels would appear to be beneficial.
This is only one study and the subjects were all female. More research is required, but from these findings at least, coffee consumption would appear to have positive effects rather than negative ones on our aural health.

Beautiful coffee

Photo by Jason Wong on Unsplash

Now the bad news

The news is not all good for coffee lovers concerned about their hearing, however. The results from another very limited study might suggest we need to pay attention to our caffeine consumption, at least under very specific conditions.

The study in question was carried out between July 2013 and March 2014, this time not on human subjects but on 24 female guinea pigs.

When our ears are exposed to loud noise, either just once, as with an explosion, or over a period of time, as when we listen to music too loud, we may suffer from noise-induced hearing loss. The study sought to establish whether caffeine has any role to play in this.

Most of us are familiar with what happens when our ears are exposed to a loud noise: we suffer a temporary partial hearing loss that may last a few hours or up to two or three days.

This temporary hearing loss is known as a “temporary threshold shift” (TTS). Afterwards, our hearing usually returns to normal.

The cause might be fireworks, a gunshot, a concert or a loud nightclub; exposure to such a noise is referred to technically as an “acoustic overstimulation event” (AOSE). Specifically, the researchers set out to investigate whether caffeine affects our ability to recover from TTSs caused by AOSEs.

The guinea pigs were divided into three groups. One group was given a dose of caffeine, the second group was exposed to AOSEs, while the third was exposed to AOSEs and was then subsequently administered doses of caffeine.

The results again were clear – and perhaps quite shocking. Unsurprisingly, the guinea pigs that received only caffeine displayed no TTS. The guinea pigs that were exposed to the AOSE suffered TTS but later fully recovered their hearing.

However, the third group suffered a loss of hearing from which they never fully recovered. This might suggest that the consumption of caffeine after an AOSE could potentially lead to TTS becoming a permanent hearing loss.

A couple of caveats

Before you go emptying your bags of coffee beans into the garbage, there are a couple of points to remember.
First, the study was carried out on a small group of female guinea pigs, and the results would not necessarily be reproduced in humans or even a bigger group of guinea pigs. A much larger study on the effects on humans would be required before we can confidently say the effect is the same.

Secondly, the guinea pigs were exposed to noise levels of 110dB, roughly the equivalent of a loud concert, for extended periods. This is much higher than recommended safe listening levels and much more than we are usually subjected to in our daily lives.

The takeaway

What we can take away from this study is that there is a possibility that caffeine consumption after exposure to an AOSE may lead to TTS becoming permanent in humans.

This doesn’t mean that we should all give up drinking coffee, it just means that it might be prudent to avoid consuming caffeine, either in tea, coffee or in any other form, if we think we may be suffering the effects of TTS.
In short, however much you need your coffee fix after the concert you went to last night, you might think twice before reaching for your coffee maker the next morning – just to be on the safe side.

Coffee and caffeine may be harmful to hearing – under very specific circumstances

To conclude, we can say that, while research into the effects of coffee and caffeine on hearing is very limited, one study shows that caffeine appears to help combat the onset of tinnitus.

In the very specific situation of having been exposed to an AOSE, another study found some evidence to suggest that caffeine may lead to a permanent hearing loss. If you think you are suffering from TTS, it is probably best to avoid caffeine until your hearing has fully returned.

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Posted by Kathy

Kathy Gallo

Kathy Gallo

Kathy Gallo is a writer who specializes in coffee. She loves coffee, and drinks two cups daily. She thinks that healthy drinks are more important than food

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