Could Earbuds be Damaging Your Hearing?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever misplaced your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, accidentally left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the laundry?) Suddenly, your morning jog is a million times more boring. You have a dull and dreary train ride to work. 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 you’re so happy when you finally get a working set of earbuds. The world is instantly vibrant again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear audio. Earbuds have so many uses other than listening to music and a large percentage of people utilize them.

Unfortunately, in part because they are so easy and so common, earbuds present some considerable risks for your hearing. Your hearing might be in jeopardy if you’re using earbuds a lot every day.

Why earbuds are different

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). That isn’t necessarily the situation now. Contemporary earbuds can provide amazing sound in a tiny space. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone manufacturers popularized these little devices by supplying a pair with every new smartphone purchase (funny enough, they’re rather rare these days when you buy a new phone).

In part because these high-quality earbuds (with microphones, even) were so easily accessible, they began showing up all over the place. Whether you’re talking on the phone, listening to tunes, or watching Netflix, earbuds are one of the primary ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).

It’s that combination of convenience, portability, and reliability that makes earbuds practical in a large number of contexts. As a result, many people use them virtually all the time. And that’s become somewhat of an issue.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

Here’s the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all essentially the same thing. They’re just waves of vibrating air molecules. Your brain will then organize the vibrations into categories like “voice” or “music”.

In this pursuit, your brain gets a big assist from your inner ear. Inside of your ear are very small hairs called stereocilia that vibrate when subjected to sound. These vibrations are infinitesimal, they’re tiny. These vibrations are recognized by your inner ear. At this stage, you have a nerve in your ear that converts those vibrations into electrical signals, and that’s what lets your brain figure it all out.

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.

The dangers of earbud use

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

Using earbuds can raise your risk of:

  • Repeated exposure increasing the development of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Needing to utilize a hearing aid in order to communicate with family and friends.
  • Developing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Going through social isolation or mental decline as a consequence of hearing loss.

There might be a greater risk with earbuds than traditional headphones, according to some evidence. The thinking here is that the sound is directed toward the more sensitive components 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 a concern besides volume

Perhaps you think there’s an easy fix: I’ll just lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite program for 24 episodes straight. Well… that would help. But there’s more to it than that.

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

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

  • Many smart devices allow you to lower the max volume so you won’t even need to think about it.
  • Take regular breaks. It’s best to take regular and lengthy breaks.
  • Activate volume alerts on your device. If your listening volume goes too high, a notification will alert you. Of course, then it’s your job to adjust your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
  • If you are listening at 80% volume, listen for a max of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn down the volume.
  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • Quit listening right away if you hear ringing in your ears or your ears start to hurt.

Earbuds particularly, and headphones in general, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (typically) happen all of a sudden; it occurs slowly and over time. Which means, you might not even recognize it occurring, at least, not until it’s too late.

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

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is usually irreversible. When the stereocilia (small hair-like cells in your ears that detect sound) get destroyed by too much exposure to loud sound, they can never be restored.

The damage builds up gradually over time, and it normally starts as very limited in scope. NHIL can be difficult to detect as a result. It may be getting progressively worse, all the while, you believe it’s just fine.

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

This means prevention is the best approach

That’s why so many hearing specialists put a significant focus on prevention. Here are some ways to continue to listen to your earbuds while reducing your risk of hearing loss with good prevention practices:

  • Getting your hearing tested by us routinely is a smart plan. We will be capable of hearing you get tested and track the overall health of your hearing.
  • Change 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 sometimes used.
  • Reduce the amount of damage your ears are encountering while you are not wearing earbuds. Avoid exceedingly loud environments whenever you can.
  • When you’re listening to your devices, make use of volume-limiting apps.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be around loud noises. Use earplugs, for instance.
  • Use earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling technology. This will mean you won’t need to turn the volume quite so high so that you can hear your media clearly.

You will be able to preserve your sense of hearing for many years by taking actions to prevent hearing loss, particularly NHIL. It can also help make treatments such as hearing aids more effective when you do eventually require them.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

Well…should I just toss my earbuds in the trash? Not Exactly! Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can be costly.

But your approach could need to be changed if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. You may not even realize that your hearing is being damaged by your earbuds. Being aware of the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

When you listen, limit the volume, that’s the first step. But talking to us about the state of your hearing is the next step.

Think you may have damaged your hearing with earbuds? We can help! Get assessed 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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