Could Earbuds be Harming Your Hearing?

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 sweatshirt that went through the laundry?) Now it’s so boring going for a jog in the morning. 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 relieved when you finally get a working set of earbuds. The world is suddenly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear sound. Earbuds have a lot of uses other than listening to tunes and a large percentage of people use them.

Unfortunately, in part because they’re so easy and so widely used, earbuds present some significant risks for your ears. If you’re wearing these devices all day every day, you might 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 heavy, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is slang for headphones). That isn’t necessarily the case now. Contemporary earbuds can supply stunning sound in a tiny space. They were made popular by smartphone makers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with pretty much every smart device sold throughout the 2010s (At present, you don’t find that as much).

These little earbuds (frequently they even include microphones) began showing up all over the place because they were so high-quality and available. Whether you’re out and about, or spending time at home, earbuds are one of the principal ways you’re taking calls, streaming your favorite show, or listening to music.

Earbuds are useful in a number of contexts because of their dependability, mobility, and convenience. As a result, many people use them almost all the time. That’s where things get a bit challenging.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

This is the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all in essence the same thing. They’re just waves of vibrating air molecules. Your brain will then sort 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 vibrate when subjected to sound. These vibrations are minute, they’re tiny. These vibrations are distinguished by your inner ear. At this stage, there’s a nerve in your ear that translates those vibrations into electrical signals, and that’s what allows your brain to figure it all out.

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

The risks of earbud use

The danger of hearing damage is widespread 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 raise your danger of:

  • Repeated exposure increasing the advancement of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Not being capable of communicating with your family and friends without wearing a hearing aid.
  • Going through social isolation or cognitive decline due to hearing loss.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss leading to deafness.

There may be a greater risk with earbuds than traditional headphones, according to some evidence. The reason might 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 on board.

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

Duration is also an issue besides volume

You may be thinking, well, the fix is simple: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming show, I’ll just lower the volume. Naturally, this would be a good idea. But there’s more to it than that.

The reason is that it’s not just the volume that’s the problem, it’s the duration. Moderate volume for five hours can be equally as damaging as top volume for five minutes.

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

  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately quit listening.
  • Activate volume warnings on your device. These warnings can alert you when your listening volume gets a little too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your job to reduce the volume.
  • Give yourself plenty of breaks. It’s best to take frequent and lengthy breaks.
  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • If you don’t want to think about it, you might even be able to change the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • Use the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more minutes? Reduce the volume.)

Earbuds particularly, and headphones in general, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So give your ears a break. Because sensorineural hearing loss typically happens slowly over time not immediately. Which means, you might not even acknowledge it happening, at least, not until it’s too late.

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

Typically, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is permanent. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear become irreversibly damaged because of noise).

The damage is scarcely noticeable, particularly in the early stages, and develops slowly over time. That can make NIHL difficult to detect. It may be getting slowly worse, in the meantime, you think it’s perfectly fine.

Sadly, NIHL cannot be cured or reversed. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can reduce the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. These treatments, however, can’t counter the damage that’s been done.

So the ideal strategy is prevention

That’s why so many hearing specialists put a considerable focus on prevention. And there are a number of ways to decrease your risk of hearing loss, and to exercise good prevention, even while using your earbuds:

  • If you do have to go into an extremely loud environment, use ear protection. Wear earplugs, for example.
  • Reduce the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you are not using earbuds. Avoid overly loud settings whenever possible.
  • Schedule routine visits with us to get your hearing checked. We will help determine the overall health of your hearing by getting you screened.
  • When you’re using your devices, make use of volume-limiting apps.
  • Change up the styles of headphones you’re wearing. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones once in a while. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.
  • Utilize earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling tech. With this function, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without having to crank it up quite as loud.

You will be able to protect your sense of hearing for many years by taking steps to prevent hearing loss, especially NHIL. 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 throw my earbuds in the trash? Well, no. Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can get costly.

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

Step one is to moderate the volume and duration of your listening. But speaking with us about the state of your hearing is the next step.

If you think you might have damage because of 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.