Say What?

You know that cigarette smoke causes serious diseases like cancer. But did you know it could also damage your hearing?

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Is the following statement true or false?

Smoking harms only the person who is smoking.

If you answered true, you’re wrong. Anyone near someone who is smoking is breathing in secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke comes in two forms: the fumes that come directly off of a burning cigarette and the fumes that smokers exhale after they’ve taken a drag on a cigarette.

It’s common knowledge that smoking causes lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease in smokers. But people breathing in secondhand smoke are susceptible to serious health problems too. “Almost one out of five people in the United States who die of lung cancer never smoked a cigarette in their life—but grew up around smokers,” says Dr. Michael Weitzman, a researcher at New York University’s School of Medicine who studies the effects of smoking.

Hearing Loss

And here’s the latest information: In a recent study, doctors at NYU report that teens exposed to secondhand smoke have higher rates of hearing loss. That’s right: The smoke from someone else’s cigarette can damage your hearing.

It is estimated that 60 percent of children in the U.S. are exposed to secondhand smoke regularly. Kids who grow up in smoking households get sick more often, have less-developed lungs, suffer from frequent ear infections, and often become asthmatic.

Weitzman has been studying secondhand smoke since the 1980s. His previous research showed that children exposed to secondhand smoke had more behavioral problems and higher rates of attention deficit hyper­activity disorder (ADHD).

But could these kids’ attention problems be due to something else? “There are numerous things that can look like ADHD, and hearing loss is one of those,” Weitzman says. A student who is having trouble hearing a teacher in class can often mistakenly appear to be not listening on purpose.

Unaware of Danger

Unlike a sprained knee or broken arm, hearing loss doesn’t give any sudden, painful warnings that something’s wrong. It’s often a gradual process. If you’re not hearing something in the first place, it’s hard to know that you’ve missed it. “Eighty-two percent of the kids in the study who were exposed to secondhand smoke really didn’t know that they had any hearing issues at all,” says Dr. Anil Lalwani, an ear, nose, and throat doctor who worked with Weitzman on the hearing-loss study.

Nicotine, a chemical in every cigarette, is emitted through exhaled smoke and can be breathed in by others. When nicotine breaks down in a person’s bloodstream, it turns into a compound called cotinine. Weitzman and Lalwani compared cotinine levels in the blood of kids and teens between the ages of 12 and 19 with their hearing levels. The doctors found that teens exposed to secondhand smoke who had the highest cotinine levels were 2.72 times more likely to have hearing loss than those who had no cotinine in their blood.

Permanent Harm

The type of hearing loss that the teens suffered was different from the temporary hearing loss that can occur after rocking out at a concert. The hearing loss connected to secondhand-smoke exposure is called sensory neural hearing loss and is irreversible. That’s because it occurs deep in a person’s inner ear.

Lalwani isn’t sure exactly what’s causing the damage to the inner ear. It’s possible that inner-ear cells with nicotine receptors could be the culprits. Or smoke could be harming blood vessels in the ears. Either way, the damage occurs across the entire range of hearing. Both high and low pitches are affected, according to the NYU study.

In the U.S., hearing tests are required before a student enters elementary school, but middle school and high school students don’t have to be tested. If you think you may have a problem with your hearing, ask your doctor to test it. “I think that adolescents should know that smoking and being around friends who smoke may have lifetime consequences on their hearing,” Weitzman says. Luckily, there may still be time for you to protect your hearing.

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