Could Earbuds be Damaging Your Ears?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever misplaced your earbuds? (Or, maybe, accidentally left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the washer and dryer?) All of a sudden, your morning jog is a million times more boring. Your commute or train ride is dreary and dull. And your virtual meetings are suffering from bad sound quality.

Sometimes, you don’t recognize how valuable something is until you have to live without it (yes, we are not being discreet around here today).

So you’re so happy when you finally get a working pair of earbuds. Now your world is full of completely clear and vibrant audio, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds have a lot of uses other than listening to music and a large percentage of individuals use them.

Unfortunately, in part because they are so easy and so ubiquitous, earbuds present some significant risks for your hearing. If you’re using these devices all day every day, you may be putting your hearing in jeopardy!

Why earbuds are unique

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a pair of headphones, you’d have to adopt a heavy, cumbersome pair of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). That’s not always the case now. Modern earbuds can supply stunning sound in a tiny space. They were made popular by smartphone makers, who included a shiny new pair of earbuds with basically every smartphone sold all through the 2010s (Currently, you don’t see that as much).

Partly because these high-quality earbuds (with microphones, even) were so readily available, they started showing up everywhere. Whether you’re out and about, or spending time at home, earbuds are one of the main ways you’re taking calls, viewing your favorite program, or listening to tunes.

It’s that combination of convenience, portability, and reliability that makes earbuds useful in a wide variety of contexts. Consequently, many consumers use them pretty much all the time. And that’s become a bit of a problem.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

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

In this pursuit, your brain gets a big assist from your inner ear. There are tiny hairs inside of your ear that oscillate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are minute, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what really identifies these vibrations. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they’re transformed into electrical impulses by a nerve in your ear.

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

The risks of earbud use

The danger of hearing damage is widespread because of the appeal 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 risk of:

  • Hearing loss contributing to cognitive decline and social isolation.
  • Developing deafness due to sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Repeated exposure increasing the advancement of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Needing to use a hearing aid so that you can communicate with family and friends.

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

Besides, what’s more significant is the volume, and any set of headphones is capable of delivering hazardous levels of sound.

Duration is also a concern besides volume

You might be thinking, well, the solution is easy: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming program, I’ll just lower the volume. Obviously, this would be a smart plan. But it may not be the total solution.

The reason is that it’s not only the volume that’s the problem, it’s the duration. Modest volume for five hours can be equally as harmful as top volume for five minutes.

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

  • Take frequent breaks. It’s best to take regular and extended breaks.
  • Stop listening right away if you notice ringing in your ears or your ears start to ache.
  • Enable volume warnings on your device. If your listening volume gets too high, a warning will alert you. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to reduce the 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 maximum of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn the volume down.
  • As a general rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.

Earbuds specifically, and headphones generally, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. Because sensorineural hearing loss typically occurs slowly over time not immediately. Which means, you may 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 permanent. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear are irreparably damaged because of noise).

The damage is hardly noticeable, especially in the early stages, and progresses slowly over time. NHIL can be hard to identify as a result. It might be getting slowly worse, all the while, you believe it’s perfectly fine.

Regrettably, NIHL cannot be cured or reversed. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can reduce the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. But the total damage that’s being done, regrettably, is irreversible.

So the ideal plan is prevention

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 routines:

  • Utilize 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.
  • Use other kinds of headphones. That is, don’t wear earbuds all day every day. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.
  • When you’re listening to your devices, use volume-limiting apps.
  • Make routine visits with us to have your hearing examined. We will be able to help you get tested and track the general health of your hearing.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be around loud noises. Use earplugs, for instance.
  • Control the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you’re not using earbuds. This could mean paying extra attention to the sound of your environment or steering clear of overly loud scenarios.

You will be able to protect 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 ultimately require them.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

Well…should I just throw my earbuds in the garbage? Not Exactly! Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little devices are not cheap!

But your approach may need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. These earbuds may be damaging your hearing and you may 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. The second step is to talk to us about the state of your hearing today.

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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