Can Your Hearing be Harmed by Earbuds?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever left your Earbuds in your pocket and they ended up going through the laundry or maybe lost them altogether? Now it’s so boring going for a walk in the morning. Your commute or train ride is dreary and dull. And the audio quality of your virtual meetings suffers significantly.

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

So when you finally find or buy a working pair of earbuds, you’re thankful. The world is suddenly vibrant 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.

But, regrettably, earbuds can present some considerable risks to your ears because so many people use them for so many listening tasks. Your hearing might be in danger if you’re using earbuds a lot every day.

Earbuds are different for a number of reasons

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality audio from a pair of headphones, you’d have to use a heavy, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). All that has now changed. Modern earbuds can supply stunning sound in a tiny space. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone makers popularized these little devices by offering a pair with every new smartphone purchase (Presently, you don’t find that so much).

In part because these sophisticated 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, streaming your favorite program, or listening to music.

It’s that mixture of convenience, mobility, and reliability that makes earbuds useful in a wide variety of contexts. Lots of individuals use them basically all of the time as a result. That’s where things get a bit challenging.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

Here’s the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all essentially the same thing. They’re simply waves of vibrating air molecules. Your brain will then classify the vibrations into categories like “voice” or “music”.

Your inner ear is the intermediary for this process. Inside of your ear are very small hairs known as stereocilia that vibrate when subjected to sound. These are not big vibrations, they’re tiny. These vibrations are distinguished by your inner ear. At that point, there’s a nerve in your ear that converts those vibrations into electrical impulses, 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 the same.

The risks of earbud use

Because of the popularity of earbuds, the risk of hearing damage due to loud noise is very 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 increase your danger of:

  • Hearing loss contributing to mental decline and social isolation.
  • Needing to use a hearing aid so that you can communicate with family and friends.
  • Developing deafness due to sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Experiencing sensorineural hearing loss with repeated exposure.

There’s some evidence to suggest that using earbuds might introduce greater risks than using regular headphones. The reason might be that earbuds move sound right to the most sensitive parts 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 capable of delivering hazardous levels of sound.

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

Maybe you think there’s a simple fix: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming show, I’ll just reduce the volume. Well… that would help. But there’s more to it than that.

This is because how long you listen is as significant as how loud it is. Moderate volume for five hours can be just as harmful as max volume for five minutes.

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

  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately quit listening.
  • Make use of the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more minutes? Reduce the volume.)
  • Give yourself plenty of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer length they are), the better.
  • If you don’t want to think about it, you might even be able to change the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • Make sure that your device has volume level alerts turned on. If your listening volume gets too high, a warning will alert you. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to lower the volume.
  • 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 usually occurs slowly over time not immediately. Which means, you might not even notice 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. When the stereocilia (small hair-like cells in your ears that detect sound) get destroyed by overexposure to loud sound, they can never be restored.

The damage builds up slowly over time, and it normally starts as very limited in scope. NHIL can be hard to identify as a result. You may think your hearing is just fine, all the while it is slowly 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 reverse the damage that’s been done.

This means prevention is the best strategy

That’s why so many hearing specialists place a considerable emphasis on prevention. And there are several ways to decrease your risk of hearing loss, and to practice good prevention, even while listening to your earbuds:

  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Ear plugs, for instance, work exceptionally well.
  • Getting your hearing tested by us regularly is a good plan. We will be able to help you get screened and monitor the general health of your hearing.
  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, limit the amount of noise damage your ears are subjected to. This could mean paying extra attention to the sound of your surroundings or steering clear of overly loud situations.
  • Switch up the styles of headphones you’re using. That is, don’t wear earbuds all day every day. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.
  • Many headphones and earbuds incorporate noise-canceling technology, try to use those. With this feature, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without needing to crank it up quite so loud.
  • When you’re using your devices, make use of volume-limiting apps.

Preventing hearing loss, especially 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?

Well…should I just toss my earbuds in the rubbish? Well, no. Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can get costly.

But your approach could need to be changed if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. You might 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, regulate the volume, that’s the first step. But speaking with us about the state of your hearing is the next step.

If you think you may have damage as a result 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.


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