Could Earbuds be Harming Your Hearing?

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 jog in the morning. Your commute or bus ride is dreary and dull. And the sound quality of your virtual meetings suffers substantially.

Often, you don’t grasp how valuable something is until you’ve lost it (yes, we are not being subtle around here today).

So when you finally find or buy a working set of earbuds, you’re thankful. The world is suddenly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear sound. Earbuds are everywhere these days, and individuals utilize them for a lot more than only listening to their favorite music (though, of course, they do that too).

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

Why earbuds are unique

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality audio from a set of headphones, you’d have to use a heavy, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). That isn’t necessarily the situation now. Awesome sound quality can be produced in a very small space with modern earbuds. They were popularized by smartphone manufacturers, who included a shiny new pair of earbuds with pretty much every smartphone sold all through the 2010s (funny enough, they’re pretty rare these days when you purchase a new phone).

In part because these sophisticated earbuds (with microphones, even) were so easily accessible, they started showing up everywhere. Whether you’re out and about, or hanging out at home, earbuds are one of the main ways you’re talking on the phone, streaming your favorite program, or listening to music.

Earbuds are useful in quite a few contexts because of their dependability, mobility, and convenience. Lots of individuals use them basically all of the time as a result. That’s where things get a bit challenging.

It’s all vibrations

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

In this activity, your brain receives a big assist from your inner ear. Inside of your ear are tiny little hairs known as stereocilia that oscillate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are minute, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what actually recognizes these vibrations. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they are transformed into electrical impulses by a nerve in your ear.

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

The dangers of earbud use

The danger of hearing damage is prevalent 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.

On an individual level, when you use earbuds at high volume, you raise your danger of:

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

There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds may present greater risks than using regular headphones. The idea here is that the sound is funneled directly toward the more sensitive parts of your ear. Some audiologists think this is the case while others still aren’t convinced.

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

Duration is also an issue besides volume

Perhaps you think there’s a simple solution: I’ll simply lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes straight. Obviously, this would be a smart idea. But it might not be the total answer.

The reason is that it’s not simply the volume that’s the issue, it’s the duration. Think about it like this: listening at top volume for five minutes will harm your ears. But listening at medium volume for five hours could also damage your ears.

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

  • Activate volume alerts on your device. If your listening volume goes too high, a warning will alert you. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to lower the volume.
  • Make use of the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more time? Reduce the volume.)
  • If you don’t want to think about it, you might even be able to change the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • As a basic rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.
  • Take regular breaks. It’s best to take regular and extended breaks.

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 all of a sudden; it progresses gradually and over time. The majority of the time individuals don’t even recognize that it’s happening until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is usually permanent. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear become irreversibly destroyed because of noise).

The damage is barely noticeable, particularly in the early stages, and develops gradually over time. That can make NIHL hard to recognize. It might be getting slowly worse, in the meantime, you believe it’s perfectly fine.

Sadly, NIHL cannot be cured or reversed. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can minimize 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 most useful strategy

This is why prevention is emphasized by so many hearing specialists. Here are some ways to continue to listen to your earbuds while reducing your risk of hearing loss with good prevention routines:

  • If you do have to go into an overly loud environment, utilize ear protection. Wear earplugs, for example.
  • Use volume-restricting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Many headphones and earbuds come with noise-canceling technology, try to utilize those. This will mean you won’t need to crank the volume quite so loud in order to hear your media clearly.
  • Switch up the styles of headphones you’re using. That is, don’t use earbuds all day every day. Over-the-ear headphones can also be used sometimes.
  • Make routine visits with us to get your hearing tested. We will be capable of hearing you get assessed and monitor the general health of your hearing.
  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, reduce the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. Avoid overly loud environments whenever you can.

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

So… are earbuds the enemy?

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

But your approach could need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. These earbuds may be damaging your hearing and you might not even realize it. Being aware of the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

When you listen, regulate the volume, that’s the first step. But talking to us about the state of your hearing is the next step.

If you think 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.