Could Earbuds be Harming Your Hearing?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever misplaced your earbuds? (Or, maybe, inadvertently left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the washer and dryer?) All of a sudden, your morning jog is so much more boring. Your commute or bus ride is dreary and dull. And the sound quality of your virtual meetings suffers considerably.

The old saying “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” applies here.

So when you finally find or purchase a working set of earbuds, you’re grateful. The world is instantly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear audio. Earbuds are all over the place right now, and individuals utilize them for so much more than just listening to their favorite songs (though, naturally, they do that too).

Regrettably, partly because they’re so easy and so ubiquitous, earbuds present some considerable risks for your ears. Your hearing might be at risk if you’re wearing earbuds a lot every day.

Earbuds are unique for a number of reasons

In the past, you would need cumbersome, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-quality listening experience. That isn’t necessarily the case anymore. Contemporary earbuds can provide stunning sound in a very small space. They were popularized by smartphone makers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with basically every smartphone sold throughout the 2010s (amusing enough, they’re pretty rare nowadays when you buy a new phone).

Partly because these high-quality earbuds (with microphones, even) were so easily accessible, they started showing up everywhere. Whether you’re out and about, or hanging out at home, earbuds are one of the main ways you’re taking calls, streaming your favorite show, or listening to music.

It’s that combination of convenience, portability, and reliability that makes earbuds useful in a wide variety of contexts. Lots of individuals use them basically all of the time consequently. That’s where things get a little tricky.

It’s all vibrations

Here’s the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all in essence the same thing. They’re simply waves of vibrating air molecules. It’s your brain that does all the work of translating those vibrations, sorting one kind of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

In this endeavor, your brain is given a big assist from your inner ear. There are tiny hairs along your ear that vibrate when exposed to sound. These are not huge vibrations, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what actually identifies these vibrations. At that point, there’s a nerve in your ear that translates those vibrations into electrical signals, and that’s what allows your brain to make heads or tails of it all.

This is significant because it’s not music or drums that cause hearing loss, it’s volume. So whether you’re listening to NPR or Death Metal, the risk is exactly the same.

What are the dangers of using earbuds?

Because of the popularity of earbuds, the risk of hearing damage as a result of loud noise is very prevalent. Across the globe, more than a billion people are at risk of developing hearing loss, according to one study.

On an individual level, when you utilize earbuds at high volume, you increase your risk of:

  • Needing to use a hearing aid so that you can communicate with family and friends.
  • Hearing loss contributing to cognitive decline and social isolation.
  • Developing sensorineural hearing loss with continued exposure.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss resulting in deafness.

There could be a greater risk with earbuds than conventional headphones, according to some evidence. The thinking here is that the sound is directed toward the more sensitive parts of your ear. Some audiologists think this is the case while others still aren’t sure.

Besides, what’s more significant is the volume, and any pair of headphones is able to deliver hazardous levels of sound.

Duration is also an issue besides volume

Perhaps you think there’s a simple fix: I’ll simply lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes straight. Of course, this would be a good idea. But it might not be the total solution.

The reason is that it’s not just the volume that’s the problem, it’s the duration. Think about it like this: listening at max volume for five minutes will damage your ears. But listening at moderate volume for five hours could also harm your ears.

So here’s how you can be a little safer when you listen:

  • If your ears start to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.
  • Be certain that your device has volume level alerts turned on. These warnings can inform you about when your listening volume gets a bit too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your job to reduce the volume.
  • Use the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more minutes? Lower the volume.)
  • As a basic rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • If you don’t want to worry about it, you might even be able to change the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • Take regular breaks. The more breaks (and the longer length they are), the better.

Earbuds specifically, and headphones in general, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So give your ears a break. Because sensorineural hearing loss usually occurs slowly over time not immediately. Which means, you may not even acknowledge it happening, at least, not until it’s too late.

There’s no cure and no way to reverse sensorineural hearing loss

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is usually irreversible. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear become irreparably destroyed because of noise).

The damage accumulates slowly over time, and it usually begins as very limited in scope. That can make NIHL difficult to detect. It might be getting progressively worse, in the meantime, you believe it’s just fine.

Sadly, NIHL can’t be cured or reversed. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can reduce the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. But the total damage that’s being done, sadly, is irreversible.

This means prevention is the best strategy

This is why prevention is stressed by so many hearing specialists. Here are a few ways to continue to listen to your earbuds while lowering your risk of hearing loss with good prevention routines:

  • When you’re listening to your devices, make use of volume-limiting apps.
  • Switch up the types of headphones you’re using. That is, don’t use earbuds all day every day. Over-the-ear headphones can also be used sometimes.
  • Wear hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Wear earplugs, for example.
  • Schedule routine visits with us to get your hearing tested. We will be able to help you get tested and track the overall health of your hearing.
  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, reduce the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. This could mean paying extra attention to the sound of your environment or avoiding overly loud situations.
  • Use earbuds and headphones that have noise-canceling technology. With this feature, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without having to turn it up quite so loud.

Preventing hearing loss, especially NIHL, can help you preserve your sense of hearing for years longer. It can also help make treatments such as hearing aids more effective when you do ultimately need them.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

Well…should I just chuck my earbuds in the rubbish? Not Exactly! Especially not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little devices are not cheap!

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds regularly, you might want to consider altering your approach. You might not even realize that your hearing is being harmed by your earbuds. Your best defense, then, is being aware of the danger.

When you listen, reduce the volume, that’s the first step. But speaking with us about the state of your hearing is the next step.

Think you might have damaged your hearing with earbuds? We can help! Get tested now!

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.


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