Can Your Hearing 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 pullover that went through the laundry?) Now it’s so boring going for a run in the morning. You have a dull and dreary commute to work. And your virtual meetings are suffering from poor audio quality.

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

So you’re so relieved when you finally get a working set of earbuds. Now your life is full of perfectly clear and vibrant audio, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds are everywhere these days, and individuals utilize them for a lot more than only listening to their favorite music (though, of course, they do that too).

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

Why earbuds are different

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a set of headphones, you’d have to adopt a bulky, cumbersome pair of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). That’s all now changed. Contemporary earbuds can provide stunning sound in a tiny space. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone makers popularized these little devices by offering a pair with every new smartphone purchase (amusing enough, they’re rather rare nowadays when you purchase a new phone).

These little earbuds (sometimes they even have microphones) started to show up all over the place because they were so high-quality and accessible. Whether you’re out and about, or spending time at home, earbuds are one of the leading ways you’re taking calls, streaming your favorite program, or listening to music.

It’s that mixture of convenience, mobility, and dependability that makes earbuds practical in a wide variety of contexts. Consequently, many consumers use them virtually all the time. And that’s become a bit of a problem.

It’s all vibrations

Basically, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re just waves of moving air molecules. It’s your brain that does all the heavy lifting of interpreting those vibrations, grouping one type of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

Your inner ear is the mediator for this process. There are tiny hairs along your ear that vibrate when exposed to sound. These are not large vibrations, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what really identifies these vibrations. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they’re converted into electrical signals by a nerve in your ear.

This is important 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 risks of using earbuds?

The risk of hearing damage is prevalent because of the popularity of earbuds. 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 raise your danger of:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss resulting in deafness.
  • Developing sensorineural hearing loss with continued exposure.
  • Not being able to communicate with your family and friends without wearing a hearing aid.
  • Hearing loss contributing to mental decline and social isolation.

There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds might present greater risks than using conventional headphones. The reason may be that earbuds move sound right to the most sensitive parts of the ear. But the jury’s still out on this, and not all audiologists are convinced.

Either way, volume is the biggest factor, and both kinds of headphones can create hazardous levels of that.

It isn’t only volume, it’s duration, also

You might be thinking, well, the solution is easy: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming show, I’ll simply reduce the volume. Well… that would be helpful. But it might not be the total answer.

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

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

  • It’s a good idea not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • Make use of the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more minutes? Reduce the volume.)
  • If your ears start to experience pain or ringing, immediately quit listening.
  • Give yourself lots of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer length they are), the better.
  • Be certain that your device has volume level alerts turned on. These warnings can let you know when your listening volume goes a bit too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your job to lower the volume.
  • If you don’t want to worry about it, you might even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.

Earbuds particularly, and headphones generally, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. Because sensorineural hearing loss generally happens gradually over time not immediately. Which means, you might not even observe it occurring, at least, not until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is irreversible

Usually, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is irreversible. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear are irreversibly destroyed due to noise).

The damage accumulates slowly over time, and it normally starts as very limited in scope. NHIL can be difficult to detect as a result. It may be getting slowly worse, in the meantime, you believe it’s just fine.

There is currently no cure or ability to reverse NIHL. However, there are treatments designed to offset and minimize some of the most significant impacts of sensorineural hearing loss (the most prevalent of such treatments is a hearing aid). These treatments, however, can’t counter the damage that’s been done.

So the best strategy is prevention

That’s why so many hearing specialists put a significant focus on prevention. And there are several ways to lower your risk of hearing loss, and to practice good prevention, even while listening to your earbuds:

  • If you do have to go into an extremely noisy setting, use ear protection. Use earplugs, for example.
  • Having your hearing tested by us regularly is a smart plan. We will be capable of hearing you get assessed and track the overall health of your hearing.
  • Use multiple types of headphones. That is, don’t use earbuds all day every day. Try using over-the-ear headphones too.
  • Use earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling tech. This will mean you won’t need to turn the volume quite so high in order to hear your media clearly.
  • When you’re using your devices, use volume-limiting apps.
  • Reduce the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you are not wearing earbuds. This could mean paying extra attention to the sound of your surroundings or steering clear of overly loud scenarios.

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 end up requiring treatment, such as hearing aids, they will be more effective.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

Well…should I just chuck my earbuds in the rubbish? Well, no. Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can be costly.

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds on a regular basis, you may want to think about changing your approach. You may not even realize that your hearing is being harmed by your earbuds. Your best defense, then, is knowing about 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.

If you think you may have damage because of overuse of earbuds, call us right away! We Can Help!

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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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