Could Earbuds be Harming Your Ears?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever lost your earbuds? (Or, maybe, inadvertently left them in the pocket of a sweatshirt that went through the washer and dryer?) 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 significantly.

Often, you don’t recognize 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 set of earbuds, you’re thankful. Now your world is full of completely clear and vibrant sound, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds have so many uses other than listening to music and a large percentage of people use them.

But, unfortunately, earbuds can present some significant risks to your hearing because so many people use them for so many listening tasks. If you’re wearing these devices all day every day, you might be putting your hearing at risk!

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 set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is slang for headphones). All that has now changed. Fabulous sound quality can be produced in a really small space with contemporary earbuds. They were made popular by smartphone manufacturers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with pretty much every smartphone sold all through the 2010s (Currently, you don’t see that so much).

In part because these sophisticated earbuds (with microphones, even) were so easily accessible, they started showing up all over the place. Whether you’re talking on the phone, listening to music, or watching movies, earbuds are one of the main ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).

It’s that mixture of convenience, portability, and dependability that makes earbuds practical in a large number of contexts. Lots of individuals use them basically all of the time as a result. And that’s become somewhat of a problem.

It’s all vibrations

Here’s the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all essentially the same thing. They’re just waves of moving air molecules. It’s your brain that does all the heavy lifting of translating those vibrations, grouping one kind of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

Your inner ear is the intermediary for this process. There are tiny hairs inside of your ear that vibrate when exposed to sound. These are not big vibrations, they’re tiny. These vibrations are distinguished by your inner ear. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they are transformed 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 the same.

What are the dangers of using earbuds?

Because of the popularity of earbuds, the danger of hearing damage as a result of loud noise is quite widespread. 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 use earbuds at high volume, you increase your danger of:

  • Repeated subjection increasing the development of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Advancing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Not being capable of communicating with your friends and family without wearing a hearing aid.
  • Hearing loss contributing to mental decline and social isolation.

There could be a greater risk with earbuds than conventional headphones, according to some evidence. The reason may be that earbuds move sound right to the most sensitive components of the ear. Some audiologists think this is the case while others still aren’t sure.

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

Duration is also an issue besides volume

Maybe you think there’s an easy solution: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming show, I’ll simply reduce the volume. Obviously, this would be a good idea. But it might not be the total solution.

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

When you listen, here are a few ways to keep it safer:

  • If you don’t want to think about it, you might even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • Take regular breaks. It’s best to take regular and lengthy breaks.
  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.
  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • If you’re listening at 80% volume, listen for a max of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen longer turn the volume down.
  • Activate volume warnings on your device. These warnings can inform you about when your listening volume gets a bit too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to reduce the volume.

Earbuds particularly, and headphones in general, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So give your ears a break. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (typically) develop all of a sudden; it occurs gradually and over time. The majority of the time individuals don’t even detect that it’s occurring until it’s too late.

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

Typically, 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 slowly over time, and it usually starts as very limited in scope. NHIL can be hard to identify as a result. You might think your hearing is just fine, all the while it is gradually getting worse and worse.

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

So the best plan is prevention

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

  • Wear hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Ear plugs, for example, work exceptionally well.
  • Use other types of headphones. That is, don’t wear earbuds all day every day. Try using over-the-ear headphones too.
  • When you’re using your devices, use volume-limiting apps.
  • Schedule routine visits with us to get your hearing checked. We will be able to help you get screened and track the general health of your hearing.
  • Use earbuds and headphones that have noise-canceling tech. With this function, you will be capable of hearing your media more clearly without having to turn it up quite so loud.
  • Control the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you’re not using earbuds. Avoid excessively loud environments whenever possible.

Preventing hearing loss, particularly 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 eventually need them.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

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

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

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 today.

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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