Could Earbuds be Harming Your Hearing?

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 wash 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 audio quality of your virtual meetings suffers considerably.

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

So when you finally find or buy a working set of earbuds, you’re thankful. Now your life is full of perfectly clear and vibrant audio, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds are all over the place these days, and people use them for so much more than simply listening to their favorite tunes (though, of course, they do that too).

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

Earbuds are different for several reasons

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a set of headphones, you’d have to adopt a bulky, cumbersome pair of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is slang for headphones). That isn’t always the case anymore. Incredible sound quality can be created in a very small space with modern earbuds. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone manufacturers popularized these little devices by supplying a pair with every new smartphone purchase (amusing enough, they’re somewhat rare these days when you buy a new phone).

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

It’s that mixture of convenience, portability, and reliability that makes earbuds practical in a wide variety of contexts. Lots of people use them pretty much all of the time as a result. That’s where things get a bit challenging.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

In essence, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re simply waves of moving air molecules. Your brain will then sort the vibrations into categories like “voice” or “music”.

In this pursuit, your brain receives a big assist from your inner ear. Inside of your ear are very small hairs known as stereocilia that oscillate when subjected to sound. These are not large 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. Which means the risk is the same whether you’re listening to Death Metal or an NPR podcast.

The dangers of earbud use

The danger of hearing damage is widespread 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 utilize earbuds at high volume, you raise your risk of:

  • Experiencing social isolation or mental decline due to hearing loss.
  • Needing to utilize a hearing aid in order to communicate with friends and loved ones.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss leading to deafness.
  • Repeated subjection increasing the development of sensorineural hearing loss.

There’s some evidence to suggest that using earbuds may introduce greater risks than using conventional headphones. The reason may 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.

Besides, what’s more relevant is the volume, and any set of headphones is capable of delivering dangerous levels of sound.

Duration is also an issue besides volume

Maybe you think there’s an easy solution: I’ll just turn down the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes in a row. Of course, this would be a smart plan. But it may not be the complete solution.

The reason is that it’s not just the volume that’s the issue, it’s the duration. Moderate volume for five hours can be equally as harmful as max volume for five minutes.

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

  • If your ears start to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.
  • Enable volume alerts on your device. If your listening volume gets too high, a notification will alert you. Naturally, then it’s your job to adjust your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
  • If you’re listening at 80% volume, listen for a max of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen longer turn down the volume.
  • Give yourself plenty of breaks. It’s best to take frequent and extended breaks.
  • If you don’t want to think about it, you may even be able to change the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • It’s a good idea not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.

Your ears can be stressed by using headphones, especially earbuds. So give your ears a break. Because sensorineural hearing loss usually happens gradually over time not immediately. The majority of the time people don’t even notice that it’s happening until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is irreversible

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is typically irreversible. When the stereocilia (small hair-like cells in your ears that detect sound) get damaged by overexposure to loud sound, they can never recover.

The damage builds up gradually over time, and it normally starts as very limited in scope. That can make NIHL hard to recognize. It might be getting gradually worse, in the meantime, you believe it’s perfectly fine.

Sadly, NIHL can’t 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, can’t counter the damage that’s been done.

This means prevention is the most useful approach

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

  • Use volume-controlling apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Change up the types of headphones you’re using. That is, don’t use earbuds all day every day. Try using over-the-ear headphones as well.
  • Getting your hearing checked by us routinely is a smart plan. We will be capable of hearing you get tested and track the overall health of your hearing.
  • Control the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you are not wearing earbuds. This could mean paying additional attention to the sound of your surroundings or steering clear of overly loud situations.
  • Some headphones and earbuds incorporate noise-canceling technology, try to utilize those. With this function, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without needing to turn it up quite so loud.
  • If you do need to go into an overly loud environment, utilize ear protection. Ear plugs, for instance, work remarkably well.

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

So… are earbuds the enemy?

So does all this mean you should find your nearest set of earbuds and throw them in the trash? Not Exactly! Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little devices are expensive!

But your approach could need to be changed if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. You may not even recognize that your hearing is being damaged by your earbuds. Being aware of the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

When you listen, reduce the volume, that’s the first step. The second step is to talk to us about the state of your hearing today.

Think you may have damaged your hearing with earbuds? We can help! Get assessed now!

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.