Hearing Health Blog

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever lost your earbuds? (Or, maybe, unintentionally left them in the pocket of a sweatshirt that went through the washer and dryer?) Now it’s so boring going for a run in the morning. You have a dull and dreary commute to work. And your virtual meetings are suffering from bad sound quality.

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 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 utilize them.

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

Earbuds are different for a number of reasons

In previous years, you would need cumbersome, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-fidelity listening experience. All that has now changed. Modern earbuds can supply amazing sound in a tiny space. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone makers popularized these little devices by supplying a pair with every new smartphone purchase (At present, you don’t find that as much).

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

It’s that combination of convenience, portability, and dependability that makes earbuds useful in a large number of contexts. Lots of individuals use them pretty much all of the time consequently. That’s where things get a little tricky.

It’s all vibrations

Essentially, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re just air molecules being moved by waves of pressure. It’s your brain that does all the work of translating those vibrations, grouping one type of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

Your inner ear is the mediator for this process. Inside of your ear are very small hairs known as stereocilia that vibrate when subjected to sound. These vibrations are minute, they’re tiny. These vibrations are distinguished by your inner ear. At this stage, there’s a nerve in your ear that converts those vibrations into electrical signals, and that’s what lets your brain make heads or tails of it all.

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

Because of the appeal of earbuds, the danger of hearing damage as a result of loud noise is pretty widespread. 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 use earbuds at high volume, you increase your danger of:

  • Hearing loss contributing to cognitive decline and social isolation.
  • Repeated exposure increasing the advancement of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Not being able to communicate with your family and friends without using a hearing aid.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss resulting in deafness.

There’s some evidence to suggest that using earbuds may present greater risks than using conventional headphones. The reason might be that earbuds move sound right to the most sensitive parts of the ear. But the jury’s still out on this, and not all audiologists are convinced.

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

Duration is also a concern besides volume

You might be thinking, well, the solution is easy: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming show, I’ll simply lower the volume. Obviously, this would be a smart plan. But there’s more to it than that.

This is because how long you listen is as significant as how loud it is. Think about it like this: listening at top volume for five minutes will damage your ears. But listening at moderate volume for five hours could also harm your ears.

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

  • Activate volume warnings on your device. 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.
  • Quit listening right away if you hear ringing in your ears or your ears begin to ache.
  • Use the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more time? Lower the volume.)
  • Give yourself plenty of 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.
  • As a general rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.

Earbuds particularly, and headphones in general, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (typically) develop all of a sudden; it occurs gradually and over time. Which means, you may not even observe it occurring, at least, not until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent

Usually, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is irreversible. 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 is hardly noticeable, particularly in the early stages, and progresses gradually over time. That can make NIHL difficult to recognize. It may be getting slowly worse, in the meantime, you think it’s just fine.

There is currently no cure or ability to reverse NIHL. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can reduce the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. These treatments, however, are not able to reverse the damage that’s been done.

So the best strategy is prevention

This is why prevention is emphasized by so many hearing specialists. And there are multiple ways to decrease your risk of hearing loss, and to practice good prevention, even while listening to your earbuds:

  • Control the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you are not wearing earbuds. Avoid excessively loud settings whenever possible.
  • If you do need to go into an overly noisy environment, utilize hearing protection. Ear plugs, for instance, work remarkably well.
  • Make routine visits with us to have your hearing examined. We will be capable of hearing you get tested and monitor the overall health of your hearing.
  • Use volume-limiting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Change up the styles of headphones you’re using. Put simply, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones once in a while. Try using over-the-ear headphones as well.
  • Some headphones and earbuds include noise-canceling technology, try to use those. This will mean you won’t have to crank the volume quite so loud so that you can hear your media clearly.

You will be able to preserve 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 ultimately need them.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

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

But your strategy could need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds constantly. These earbuds may be damaging your hearing and you may not even realize it. Knowing the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

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

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

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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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