Can Your Ears be Harmed by Earbuds?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever lost your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, unintentionally left them in the pocket of a sweatshirt that went through the laundry?) Now it’s so boring going for a run in the morning. You have a dull and dreary train ride to work. And your virtual meetings are suffering from bad audio quality.

Often, you don’t grasp how valuable something is until you’ve lost it (yes, we are not being subtle around here today).

So when you finally find or purchase a working pair of earbuds, you’re grateful. The world is suddenly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear audio. Earbuds have a lot of uses other than listening to music and a large percentage of people use them.

Regrettably, partly because they’re so easy and so common, earbuds present some significant risks for your hearing. If you’re using these devices all day every day, you might be putting your hearing in jeopardy!

Earbuds are different for several reasons

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality audio from a pair of headphones, you’d have to use a heavy, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). All that has now changed. Contemporary earbuds can provide stunning sound in a tiny space. They were made popular by smartphone makers, who included a shiny new pair of earbuds with pretty much every smartphone sold throughout the 2010s (Presently, you don’t see that so much).

In part because these sophisticated earbuds (with microphones, even) were so readily available, they began showing up everywhere. Whether you’re out and about, or hanging out at home, earbuds are one of the main ways you’re talking on the phone, viewing your favorite program, or listening to music.

Earbuds are practical in a number of contexts because of their dependability, portability, and convenience. Because of this, many people use them virtually all the time. That’s where things get a little tricky.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

In essence, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re simply air molecules being vibrated by waves of pressure. Your brain will then sort the vibrations into categories like “voice” or “music”.

Your inner ear is the intermediary for this process. There are tiny hairs inside of your ear that oscillate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are infinitesimal, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what actually identifies these vibrations. At this stage, you have a nerve in your ear that converts those vibrations into electrical impulses, and that’s what lets your brain figure it all out.

It’s not what type of sound but volume that causes hearing loss. So whether you’re listening to NPR or Death Metal, the risk is exactly the same.

The risks of earbud use

Because of the popularity of earbuds, the risk of hearing damage due to loud noise is quite prevalent. According to one study, over 1 billion young individuals are at risk of developing hearing loss across the globe.

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

  • Hearing loss contributing to cognitive decline and social isolation.
  • Experiencing sensorineural hearing loss with repeated exposure.
  • Developing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Needing to use a hearing aid so that you can communicate with friends and loved ones.

There’s some evidence to suggest that using earbuds might present greater risks than using regular headphones. The thinking here is that the sound is funneled directly 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 set of headphones is capable of delivering dangerous levels of sound.

It’s not just volume, it’s duration, as well

You may be thinking, well, the solution is easy: I’ll simply lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes in a row. Obviously, this would be a smart plan. But it might not be the complete answer.

This is because how long you listen is as crucial as how loud it is. Moderate volume for five hours can be just as harmful as max volume for five minutes.

When you listen, here are some ways to make it safer:

  • Be certain that your device has volume level warnings enabled. If your listening volume gets too high, a warning will alert you. Naturally, then it’s up to you to lower your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
  • If you don’t want to think about it, you might even be able to change the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • Use the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more minutes? Reduce the volume.)
  • Give yourself plenty of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.
  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.

Your ears can be stressed by utilizing headphones, especially earbuds. So give your ears a break. Because sensorineural hearing loss normally occurs slowly over time not suddenly. Which means, you might not even recognize it occurring, at least, not until it’s too late.

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

Usually, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is irreversible. When the stereocilia (small hair-like cells in your ears that detect sound) get damaged by overexposure to loud sound, they can never recover.

The damage accumulates gradually over time, and it normally starts as very limited in scope. That can make NIHL difficult to detect. You may think your hearing is perfectly fine, all the while it’s slowly getting worse and worse.

There is presently no cure or capability of reversing NIHL. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can mitigate the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. But the overall damage that’s being done, sadly, is irreversible.

So the best plan is prevention

That’s why so many hearing specialists put a considerable emphasis on prevention. Here are a few ways to continue to listen to your earbuds while reducing your risk of hearing loss with good prevention routines:

  • Change up the types of headphones you’re using. That is, don’t wear earbuds all day every day. Try utilizing over-the-ear headphones too.
  • Limit the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you’re not wearing earbuds. Avoid excessively loud environments whenever you can.
  • Use volume-limiting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Use earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling technology. This will mean you won’t have to turn the volume quite so high so that you can hear your media clearly.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be around loud noises. Wear earplugs, for example.
  • Getting your hearing tested by us regularly is a smart plan. We will be able to help you get assessed and track the general health of your hearing.

You will be able to protect your sense of hearing for many years by taking steps to prevent hearing loss, especially NHIL. And, if you do wind up requiring treatment, like hearing aids, they will be more effective.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

So does all this mean you should find your nearest set of earbuds and chuck them in the garbage? Not Exactly! Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can get costly.

But your approach may need to be changed if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. These earbuds may be harming your hearing and you might not even notice it. Your best defense, then, is being aware of the danger.

When you listen, reduce the volume, that’s the first step. The second step is to talk to us about the state of your hearing right away.

Think you may 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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