Could Earbuds be Damaging Your Hearing?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever misplaced your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, unintentionally left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the washer and dryer?) Now it’s so boring going for a jog in the morning. Your commute or bus ride is dreary and dull. And your virtual meetings are suffering from bad sound quality.

The old saying “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” applies here.

So when you finally find or purchase a working set of earbuds, you’re grateful. The world is instantly vibrant again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear sound. Earbuds are everywhere nowadays, and people use them for so much more than just listening to their favorite songs (though, obviously, they do that too).

Unfortunately, in part because they are so easy and so widely used, earbuds present some significant risks for your ears. Your hearing might be in danger if you’re using earbuds a lot every day.

Earbuds are different for several reasons

In previous years, you would need cumbersome, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-fidelity listening experience. That’s not necessarily the situation anymore. 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 (amusing enough, they’re pretty rare these days when you purchase a new phone).

These little earbuds (frequently they even have microphones) began showing up all over the place because they were so high-quality and available. Whether you’re taking calls, listening to tunes, or watching Netflix, earbuds are one of the main ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).

Earbuds are useful in quite a few contexts because of their dependability, mobility, and convenience. As a result, many consumers use them virtually all the time. That’s where things get a little challenging.

It’s all vibrations

In essence, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re simply waves of moving air molecules. It’s your brain that does all the heavy lifting of translating those vibrations, sorting one kind of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

In this pursuit, your brain receives a big assist from your inner ear. There are tiny hairs inside of your ear that vibrate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are minute, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what actually identifies these vibrations. At this stage, there’s a nerve in your ear that translates those vibrations into electrical impulses, and that’s what allows your brain to make heads or tails of it all.

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

The risks of earbud use

Because of the appeal of earbuds, the danger of hearing damage as a result of loud noise is quite prevalent. 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:

  • Not being able to communicate with your family and friends without wearing a hearing aid.
  • Experiencing sensorineural hearing loss with repeated exposure.
  • Experiencing social isolation or cognitive decline due to hearing loss.
  • Developing deafness due to sensorineural hearing loss.

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

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

It’s not only volume, it’s duration, also

Perhaps you think there’s an easy fix: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming program, I’ll just lower the volume. Naturally, this would be a good idea. But there’s more to it than that.

This is because how long you listen is as important as how loud it is. Think about it like this: listening at max volume for five minutes will harm your ears. But listening at medium volume for five hours might also harm your ears.

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

  • If your ears start to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.
  • Activate volume alerts on your device. These warnings can let you know when your listening volume gets a little too high. Of course, then it’s up to you to lower your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • If you’re listening at 80% volume, listen for a maximum of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn down the volume.
  • If you don’t want to worry about it, you may even be able to change the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • Take regular breaks. The more breaks (and the longer length they are), the better.

Your ears can be stressed by utilizing headphones, especially earbuds. So give your ears a break. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) happen all of a sudden; it progresses slowly and over time. Which means, you may not even notice it happening, at least, not until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is irreversible

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 be restored.

The damage is scarcely noticeable, especially in the early stages, and progresses slowly over time. NHIL can be hard to detect as a result. It might be getting gradually worse, in the meantime, you believe it’s just fine.

Regrettably, NIHL cannot be cured or reversed. 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, sadly, is permanent.

So the best strategy is prevention

This is why prevention is stressed by so many hearing specialists. Here are some ways to keep listening to your earbuds while lowering your risk of hearing loss with good prevention routines:

  • Utilize earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling tech. With this function, you will be capable of hearing your media more clearly without needing to crank it up quite as loud.
  • When you’re listening to your devices, make use of volume-limiting apps.
  • Change up the types of headphones you’re using. Put simply, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones once in a while. Over-the-ear headphones can also be used sometimes.
  • If you do need to go into an extremely noisy setting, use ear protection. Ear plugs, for instance, work quite well.
  • Getting your hearing checked by us routinely is a smart plan. We will be able to help you get assessed and monitor the overall health of your hearing.
  • When you’re not using your earbuds, reduce the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. This could mean paying extra attention to the sound of your environment or avoiding overly loud scenarios.

Preventing hearing loss, particularly NIHL, can help you safeguard your sense of hearing for years longer. And, if you do end up requiring treatment, like hearing aids, they will be more effective.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

So does all this mean you should grab your nearest pair of earbuds and chuck them in the trash? Not Exactly! Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little gizmos are not cheap!

But your strategy could need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds constantly. These earbuds could be harming your hearing and you may not even recognize it. Your best defense, then, is being aware of the danger.

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 believe you may 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.