Can Your Ears be Damaged by Earbuds?

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 bus ride is dreary and dull. And your virtual meetings are suffering from poor audio quality.

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

So you’re so happy when you finally get a working pair of earbuds. The world is instantly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear sound. Earbuds have so many uses other than listening to tunes and a large percentage of individuals use them.

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

Why earbuds are different

In previous years, you would need bulky, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-quality listening experience. That’s all now changed. Modern earbuds can provide amazing sound in a tiny space. They were made popular by smartphone manufacturers, who included a shiny new pair of earbuds with basically every smart device sold throughout the 2010s (Currently, you don’t see that so much).

These little earbuds (frequently 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 tunes, or watching movies, earbuds are one of the main ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).

Earbuds are practical in quite a few contexts because of their reliability, portability, and convenience. Because of this, many consumers use them almost all the time. That’s where things get a little challenging.

It’s all vibrations

This is the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all in essence the same thing. They’re simply air molecules being vibrated by waves of pressure. 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. There are very small hairs along your ear that oscillate when exposed to sound. These are not big vibrations, they’re very small. Your inner ear is what really identifies these vibrations. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they’re converted into electrical signals by a nerve in your ear.

This is significant because it’s not music or drums that cause hearing loss, 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. 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 danger of:

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

There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds may present greater risks than using regular headphones. The reason might be that earbuds direct sound right to the most sensitive parts of the ear. Some audiologists think this is the case while others still aren’t convinced.

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

It isn’t just volume, it’s duration, also

You may be thinking, well, the fix is easy: I’ll just lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes in a row. Well… that would be helpful. But it may not be the complete answer.

This is because how long you listen is as significant as how loud it is. Modest volume for five hours can be just as damaging as top volume for five minutes.

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

  • Use the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more time? Reduce the volume.)
  • Take frequent breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration 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.
  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • Be certain that your device has volume level alerts turned on. These warnings can let you know when your listening volume goes a bit too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to reduce the volume.
  • Stop listening right away if you hear ringing in your ears or your ears begin to hurt.

Your ears can be stressed by using headphones, particularly earbuds. So give your ears a break. Because sensorineural hearing loss typically happens gradually over time not immediately. 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 too much exposure to loud sound, they can never recover.

The damage accumulates slowly over time, and it normally begins as very limited in scope. That can make NIHL hard to recognize. It may be getting progressively worse, all the while, you think it’s perfectly fine.

Unfortunately, NIHL cannot be cured or reversed. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can reduce the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. But the overall damage that’s being done, unfortunately, is irreversible.

This means prevention is the most useful strategy

That’s why so many hearing specialists put a substantial emphasis on prevention. And there are several ways to lower your risk of hearing loss, and to exercise good prevention, even while using your earbuds:

  • Control the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you’re not wearing earbuds. This could mean paying extra attention to the sound of your environment or steering clear of overly loud scenarios.
  • Having your hearing checked by us routinely is a good plan. We will help establish the overall health of your hearing by getting you screened.
  • Some headphones and earbuds incorporate noise-canceling technology, try to utilize those. With this feature, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without needing to turn it up quite so loud.
  • Use other kinds of headphones. That is, don’t wear earbuds all day every day. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.
  • When you’re listening to your devices, make use of volume-limiting apps.
  • If you do need to go into an extremely noisy setting, use ear protection. Ear plugs, for instance, work quite well.

Preventing hearing loss, especially NIHL, can help you preserve your sense of hearing for years longer. It can also help make treatments such as hearing aids more effective when you do ultimately need them.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

So does all this mean you should find your nearest set of earbuds and chuck them in the trash? Well, no. Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little gizmos are expensive!

But your strategy may need to be changed if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. You may not even realize that your hearing is being damaged by your earbuds. Your best defense, then, is being aware of the danger.

Step one is to moderate the volume and duration of your listening. Step two is to talk to us about the state of your hearing right away.

Think you might 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.

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