Could Earbuds be Damaging Your Ears?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever forgotten your Earbuds in your pocket and they ended up going through the laundry or maybe lost them altogether? Suddenly, your morning jog is a million times more boring. Your commute or train ride is dreary and dull. And the sound quality of your virtual meetings suffers significantly.

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. Now your life is full of completely clear and vibrant audio, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds are everywhere these days, and individuals utilize them for so much more than just listening to their favorite music (though, obviously, they do that too).

Regrettably, in part because they are so easy and so ubiquitous, earbuds present some significant risks for your ears. If you’re using these devices all day every day, you could be putting your hearing in jeopardy!

Why earbuds are different

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a pair of headphones, you’d have to adopt a bulky, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). That’s all now changed. Contemporary earbuds can provide fantastic sound in a very small space. They were made popular by smartphone makers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with basically every smartphone sold throughout the 2010s (Presently, you don’t find that so much).

These little earbuds (sometimes they even include microphones) began showing up all over the place because they were so high-quality and accessible. Whether you’re talking on the phone, listening to music, or watching Netflix, earbuds are one of the main ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).

Earbuds are practical in a number of contexts because of their reliability, mobility, and convenience. As a result, many consumers use them almost all the time. That’s where things get a little tricky.

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 moving air molecules. Your brain will then organize 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 called stereocilia that oscillate when exposed to sound. These are not huge vibrations, they’re tiny. These vibrations are recognized by your inner ear. At this stage, you have a nerve in your ear that translates those vibrations into electrical signals, and that’s what lets your brain make heads or tails of it all.

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

What are the dangers of using earbuds?

The danger of hearing damage is prevalent because of the appeal 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 utilize earbuds at high volume, you raise your risk of:

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

There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds might introduce greater risks than using conventional headphones. The reason might be that earbuds direct 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.

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

It isn’t simply volume, it’s duration, as well

Maybe you think there’s an easy fix: I’ll simply lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite program for 24 episodes straight. Well… that would help. But there’s more to it than that.

The reason is that it’s not just 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 might also harm your ears.

So here’s how you can be somewhat safer when you listen:

  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately quit listening.
  • If you’re listening at 80% volume, listen for a maximum of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn the volume down.
  • Take frequent breaks. It’s best to take regular and lengthy breaks.
  • Make sure that your device has volume level warnings enabled. If your listening volume gets too high, a warning will alert you. Once you hear this alert, it’s your job to lower the volume.
  • As a basic rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • Many smart devices let you decrease the max volume so you won’t even have to worry about it.

Your ears can be stressed by using headphones, specifically earbuds. So try to cut your ears some slack. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (typically) happen all of a sudden; it progresses slowly and over time. Most of the time people don’t even notice that it’s happening until it’s too late.

There’s no cure and no way to reverse sensorineural hearing loss

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

The damage is scarcely noticeable, particularly in the early stages, and progresses slowly over time. That can make NIHL hard to detect. You might think your hearing is perfectly fine, all the while it is gradually getting worse and worse.

Sadly, NIHL can’t 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 counter 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 keep listening to your earbuds while decreasing your risk of hearing loss with good prevention routines:

  • Use volume-limiting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Many headphones and earbuds incorporate noise-canceling technology, try to use those. This will mean you won’t have to turn the volume quite so high so that you can hear your media clearly.
  • When you’re not using your earbuds, reduce the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. Avoid overly loud settings whenever you can.
  • Use multiple kinds of headphones. That is, don’t use earbuds all day every day. Over-the-ear headphones can also be used sometimes.
  • Getting your hearing checked by us regularly is a good plan. We will help determine the general health of your hearing by having you screened.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Use earplugs, for example.

You will be able to protect your sense of hearing for many years by taking measures to prevent hearing loss, particularly NHIL. It can also help make treatments such as hearing aids more effective when you do ultimately require them.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

So does all this mean you should grab your nearest set of earbuds and chuck them in the garbage? Not Exactly! Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can get expensive.

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds regularly, you may want to think about changing your approach. These earbuds may be harming your hearing and you might not even realize it. Being aware of the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

Step one is to control 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 might 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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