Could Earbuds be Harming Your Hearing?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever lost your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, accidentally left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the washer and dryer?) Now it’s so boring going for a jog in the morning. Your commute or train ride is dreary and dull. And the audio quality of your virtual meetings suffers considerably.

Often, you don’t realize how valuable something is until you have to live without it (yes, we are not being discreet around here today).

So when you finally find or buy a working pair of earbuds, you’re grateful. The world is suddenly vibrant again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear audio. Earbuds are all over the place right now, and individuals utilize them for a lot more than just listening to their favorite tunes (though, naturally, they do that too).

But, regrettably, earbuds can present some significant risks to your ears because so many people are using them for so many listening activities. If you’re wearing these devices all day every day, you may be putting your hearing in danger!

Why earbuds are different

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a pair of headphones, you’d have to use a heavy, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). All that has now changed. Contemporary earbuds can supply amazing sound in a very small space. They were popularized by smartphone makers, who included a shiny new pair of earbuds with basically every smartphone sold all through the 2010s (amusing enough, they’re pretty rare nowadays when you buy a new phone).

These little earbuds (sometimes they even include microphones) started to show up everywhere because they were so high-quality and accessible. Whether you’re out and about, or spending time at home, earbuds are one of the principal ways you’re taking calls, viewing your favorite show, or listening to music.

It’s that mixture of convenience, mobility, and dependability that makes earbuds practical in a wide variety of contexts. Lots of individuals use them basically all of the time consequently. And that’s become a bit of a problem.

It’s all vibrations

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

In this pursuit, your brain is given a big assist from your inner ear. Inside of your ear are tiny little hairs called stereocilia that vibrate when subjected to sound. These are not huge vibrations, they’re very small. These vibrations are distinguished by your inner ear. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they’re transformed into electrical impulses by a nerve in your ear.

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

What are the dangers of using earbuds?

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

  • Sensorineural hearing loss resulting in deafness.
  • Not being capable of communicating with your friends and family without using a hearing aid.
  • Hearing loss contributing to cognitive decline and social isolation.
  • Experiencing sensorineural hearing loss with repeated exposure.

There’s some evidence to suggest that using earbuds might present greater risks than using conventional headphones. The idea here is that the sound is directed toward the more sensitive parts of your ear. But the jury’s still out on this, and not all audiologists are convinced.

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

It’s not simply volume, it’s duration, as well

You might be thinking, well, the solution is simple: I’ll simply lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite program for 24 episodes in a row. Obviously, this would be a smart idea. But there’s more to it than that.

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

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

  • Give yourself plenty of breaks. It’s best to take frequent and lengthy breaks.
  • Be certain that your device has volume level warnings enabled. These warnings can let you know when your listening volume goes a little too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your job to reduce the volume.
  • It’s a good idea not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • Some smart devices allow you to lower the max volume so you won’t even have to worry about it.
  • 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.
  • Quit listening immediately if you notice ringing in your ears or your ears start to ache.

Your ears can be stressed by using headphones, particularly earbuds. So give your ears a break. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (typically) develop all of a sudden; it progresses slowly and over time. The majority of the time people don’t even recognize that it’s occurring until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent

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

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

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. But the total damage that’s being done, sadly, is irreversible.

So the ideal strategy is prevention

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

  • Use multiple kinds of headphones. That is, don’t wear earbuds all day every day. Try using over-the-ear headphones also.
  • Having your hearing checked by us regularly is a smart plan. We will be capable of hearing you get assessed and monitor the overall health of your hearing.
  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, limit the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. This could mean paying extra attention to the sound of your surroundings or avoiding overly loud scenarios.
  • Use earbuds and headphones that have noise-canceling technology. With this function, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without having to turn it up quite so loud.
  • Use volume-limiting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • If you do need to go into an extremely noisy setting, utilize hearing protection. Wear earplugs, for example.

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

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! Especially not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little gizmos are expensive!

But your strategy may need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds constantly. You might not even realize that your hearing is being damaged by your earbuds. Being aware of the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

Step one is to moderate the volume and duration of your listening. The second step is to consult with us about the state of your hearing today.

If you think you might 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.

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