Can Your Ears be Harmed by Earbuds?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever lost your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, unintentionally left them in the pocket of a sweatshirt that went through the laundry?) Suddenly, your morning jog is so much more boring. You have a dull and dreary train ride to work. And the sound quality of your virtual meetings suffers considerably.

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

So you’re so relieved when you finally get a working pair of earbuds. The world is suddenly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear sound. Earbuds are all over the place right now, and people use them for so much more than only listening to their favorite tunes (though, of course, they do that too).

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

Why earbuds are different

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a set of headphones, you’d have to use a bulky, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is slang for headphones). That’s not necessarily the situation anymore. Contemporary earbuds can provide fantastic sound in a very small space. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone manufacturers popularized these little devices by offering a pair with every new smartphone purchase (amusing enough, they’re rather rare nowadays when you buy a new phone).

In part because these sophisticated earbuds (with microphones, even) were so easily accessible, they began showing up all over the place. Whether you’re taking calls, listening to tunes, 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, mobility, and reliability that makes earbuds useful in a wide variety of contexts. As a result, 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

Basically, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re simply air molecules being moved by waves of pressure. It’s your brain that does all the heavy lifting of interpreting those vibrations, grouping one type 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 along your ear that vibrate when exposed to sound. These are not big vibrations, they’re tiny. These vibrations are recognized by your inner ear. At that point, you have a nerve in your ear that converts those vibrations into electrical impulses, and that’s what allows your brain to figure it all out.

This is significant because it’s not music or drums that cause hearing damage, it’s volume. So whether you’re listening to NPR or Death Metal, the risk is exactly the same.

What are the risks of using earbuds?

Because of the popularity of earbuds, the risk of hearing damage due to loud noise is fairly prevalent. According to one study, over 1 billion young individuals are at risk of developing hearing loss across the globe.

On an individual level, when you use earbuds at high volume, you increase your risk of:

  • Needing to use a hearing aid in order to communicate with friends and loved ones.
  • Experiencing social isolation or mental decline as a result of hearing loss.
  • Developing sensorineural hearing loss with continued exposure.
  • Advancing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.

There may be a greater risk with earbuds than conventional headphones, according to some evidence. The reason might be that earbuds direct sound right to the most sensitive components of the ear. Some audiologists believe this while others still aren’t convinced.

Either way, volume is the biggest factor, and both kinds of headphones can deliver hazardous levels of that.

Duration is also an issue besides volume

Maybe you think there’s a simple solution: I’ll just turn down the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes in a row. Obviously, this would be a good idea. But it may not be the complete answer.

The reason is that it’s not simply the volume that’s the problem, it’s the duration. Modest volume for five hours can be just as harmful as max volume for five minutes.

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

  • Take frequent breaks. It’s best to take frequent and extended breaks.
  • Some smart devices let you lower the max volume so you won’t even need to think about it.
  • If your ears start to experience pain or ringing, immediately quit listening.
  • If you’re 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.
  • Make sure that your device has volume level warnings enabled. 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!

Your ears can be stressed by using headphones, particularly earbuds. So try to cut your ears some slack. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (typically) happen suddenly; it occurs slowly and over time. The majority of the time individuals don’t even recognize that it’s happening until it’s too late.

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

Usually, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is permanent. When the stereocilia (small hair-like cells in your ears that detect sound) get damaged by too much exposure to loud sound, they can never be restored.

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

Unfortunately, NIHL cannot be cured or reversed. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can mitigate the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. These treatments, however, are not able to counter the damage that’s been done.

This means prevention is the best approach

That’s why so many hearing specialists place a considerable focus on prevention. Here are several ways to continue to listen to your earbuds while lowering your risk of hearing loss with good prevention practices:

  • When you’re using your devices, make use of volume-limiting apps.
  • Limit the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you are not wearing earbuds. This could mean paying extra attention to the sound of your surroundings or steering clear of overly loud situations.
  • Make regular visits with us to get your hearing checked. We will be capable of hearing you get screened and track the overall health of your hearing.
  • Change up the types of headphones you’re wearing. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other kinds of headphones once in a while. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.
  • Use earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling technology. With this function, you will be capable of hearing your media more clearly without needing to turn it up quite as loud.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Wear earplugs, for instance.

You will be able to protect your sense of hearing for many years by taking measures to prevent hearing loss, particularly NHIL. 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 garbage? Well, no. Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can get costly.

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds on a regular basis, you might want to consider varying your strategy. You might not even recognize that your hearing is being damaged by your earbuds. Knowing the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

Step one is to moderate the volume and duration of your listening. The second step is to talk to us about the state of your hearing right away.

If you think you might 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.

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