Can Your Hearing be Damaged by Earbuds?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever lost your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, accidentally left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the washer and dryer?) Now it’s so boring going for a run in the morning. Your commute or train ride is dreary and dull. And the sound quality of your virtual meetings suffers substantially.

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

So when you finally find or buy a working set of earbuds, you’re thankful. The world is instantly vibrant again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear audio. Earbuds have a lot of uses other than listening to tunes and a large percentage of people use them.

But, unfortunately, earbuds can present some substantial risks to your hearing because so many people are using them for so many listening activities. If you’re wearing these devices all day every day, you may be putting your hearing in danger!

Why earbuds are unique

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a set of headphones, you’d have to use a bulky, cumbersome pair of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). All that has now changed. Incredible sound quality can be produced in a very small space with contemporary earbuds. They were popularized by smartphone makers, who included a shiny new pair of earbuds with pretty much every smartphone sold throughout the 2010s (funny enough, they’re somewhat rare these days when you purchase a new phone).

These little earbuds (frequently they even include microphones) began showing up everywhere because they were so high-quality and accessible. Whether you’re taking calls, listening to music, or watching Netflix, earbuds are one of the chief ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).

Earbuds are useful in quite a few contexts because of their reliability, portability, and convenience. Lots of people use them pretty much all of the time consequently. That’s where things get a little challenging.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

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

Your inner ear is the mediator for this process. Inside of your ear are very small hairs known as stereocilia that oscillate when subjected to sound. These vibrations are infinitesimal, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what really recognizes 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 kind of sound but volume that results in hearing loss. Which means the risk is equivalent whether you’re listening to Death Metal or an NPR podcast.

What are the dangers of using earbuds?

The risk of hearing damage is prevalent because of the popularity of earbuds. According to one study, over 1 billion young individuals are at risk of developing hearing loss across the globe.

Using earbuds can increase your danger of:

  • Continued subjection increasing the development of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Experiencing social isolation or mental decline as a consequence of hearing loss.
  • Needing to use a hearing aid in order to communicate with friends and loved ones.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss leading to deafness.

There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds might introduce greater risks than using conventional headphones. The idea here is that the sound is directed toward the more sensitive parts of your ear. But the jury’s still out on this, and not all audiologists are on board.

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

It’s not simply volume, it’s duration, also

You might be thinking, well, the fix is easy: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming program, I’ll simply reduce the volume. Of course, this would be a smart idea. But there’s more to it than that.

This is because how long you listen is as important as how loud it is. Think about it like this: listening at top volume for five minutes will harm your ears. But listening at medium volume for five hours might also harm your ears.

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

  • As a general rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • If you don’t want to think about it, you may even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • If you are listening at 80% volume, listen for a max of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen longer turn down the volume.
  • Give yourself plenty of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer length they are), the better.
  • Make sure that your device has volume level alerts enabled. If your listening volume goes too high, a warning will alert you. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to reduce the volume.
  • Quit listening immediately if you hear ringing in your ears or your ears start to ache.

Your ears can be stressed by utilizing headphones, particularly earbuds. So give your ears a break. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) develop all of a sudden; it occurs slowly and over time. Which means, you might not even notice it happening, at least, not until it’s too late.

There is no cure and no way to reverse sensorineural hearing loss

Noise-generated Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is typically irreversible. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear are irreversibly destroyed due to noise).

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

There is presently no cure or ability to reverse NIHL. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can mitigate the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. But the general damage that’s being done, regrettably, is permanent.

This means prevention is the most useful approach

This is why prevention is emphasized by so many hearing specialists. And there are multiple ways to decrease your risk of hearing loss, and to exercise good prevention, even while using your earbuds:

  • Many headphones and earbuds come with noise-canceling technology, try to use those. This will mean you won’t have to crank the volume quite so loud in order to hear your media clearly.
  • Switch up the types of headphones you’re using. That is, don’t use earbuds all day every day. Try utilizing over-the-ear headphones as well.
  • Use volume-limiting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Wear hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Wear earplugs, for example.
  • When you’re not using your earbuds, limit the amount of noise damage your ears are subjected to. Avoid excessively loud environments whenever possible.
  • Make routine visits with us to have your hearing checked. We will help establish the overall health of your hearing by getting you screened.

Preventing hearing loss, particularly NIHL, can help you protect your sense of hearing for years longer. And, if you do end up needing treatment, such as hearing aids, they will be more effective.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

So does all this mean you should find your nearest pair of earbuds and chuck them in the trash? Well, no. Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can get expensive.

But your strategy could need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds constantly. These earbuds could be damaging your hearing and you might not even recognize it. Your best defense, then, is knowing about the danger.

Step one is to control the volume and duration of your listening. Step two is to consult with us about the state of your hearing today.

If you believe you may have damage caused by overuse of earbuds, call us right away! We Can Help!

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.

Questions? Talk To Us.

    Dr. Laura Padham, Audiologist

    Ocean Gate, NJ

    143 W Barnegat Avenue
    Ocean Gate, NJ 08740

    Mobile Services in:Ocean, Monmouth, Middlesex, Somerset, Union, Essex, Hudson, Bergen, Passaic, Atlantic, Mercer, and Burlington Counties.

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