Can Your Ears be Harmed by Earbuds?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever misplaced your earbuds? (Or, maybe, accidentally left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the laundry?) Suddenly, your morning jog is a million times more boring. You have a dull and dreary commute to work. And your virtual meetings are suffering from poor sound quality.

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

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 audio. Earbuds are everywhere nowadays, and people use them for so much more than only listening to their favorite tunes (though, obviously, they do that too).

But, unfortunately, earbuds can present some considerable risks to your hearing because so many people are using them for so many listening activities. Your hearing could be in jeopardy if you’re wearing earbuds a lot every day.

Earbuds are unique for numerous reasons

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a pair of headphones, you’d have to adopt a heavy, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). All that has now changed. Awesome sound quality can be created in a really small space with modern earbuds. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone manufacturers popularized these little devices by supplying a pair with every new smartphone purchase (Currently, you don’t find that as much).

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

Earbuds are practical in quite a few contexts because of their reliability, portability, and convenience. Lots of people use them basically all of the time consequently. And that’s become somewhat of a problem.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

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

Your inner ear is the intermediary for this process. There are tiny hairs along your ear that oscillate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are minute, they’re tiny. These vibrations are distinguished by your inner ear. At this stage, you have a nerve in your ear that translates those vibrations into electrical impulses, and that’s what lets your brain figure it all out.

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

The dangers of earbud use

The danger of hearing damage is widespread because of the popularity of earbuds. Across the globe, more than a billion people are at risk of developing hearing loss, according to one study.

Using earbuds can raise your risk of:

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

There may be a greater risk with earbuds than traditional headphones, according to some evidence. 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 convinced.

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

Duration is also an issue besides volume

You might be thinking, well, the solution is simple: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming show, I’ll simply reduce the volume. Well… that would be helpful. But it might not be the complete solution.

The reason is that it’s not just the volume that’s the problem, it’s the duration. Think about it like this: listening at top volume for five minutes will damage your ears. But listening at medium volume for five hours might also harm your ears.

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

  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.
  • Enable volume alerts on your device. These warnings can inform you about when your listening volume goes a little too high. Of course, then it’s your job to lower your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • Give yourself plenty of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer length they are), the better.
  • If you don’t want to worry about it, you might even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • If you are listening at 80% volume, listen for a maximum of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen longer turn the volume down.

Your ears can be stressed by utilizing headphones, especially earbuds. So try to cut your ears some slack. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) develop all of a sudden; it occurs slowly and over time. Which means, you might not even acknowledge it happening, at least, not until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent

Noise-generated Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is usually irreversible. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear are irreversibly destroyed due to noise).

The damage is barely noticeable, especially in the early stages, and develops slowly over time. That can make NIHL difficult to recognize. You may think your hearing is perfectly fine, all the while it is gradually getting worse and worse.

There is presently no cure or ability to reverse NIHL. Still, there are treatments designed to mitigate and minimize some of the most considerable effects of sensorineural hearing loss (the most popular of such treatments is a hearing aid). These treatments, however, are not able to counter the damage that’s been done.

This means prevention is the best approach

That’s why so many hearing specialists put a substantial emphasis on prevention. Here are some ways to keep listening to your earbuds while lowering your risk of hearing loss with good prevention practices:

  • Use earbuds and headphones that have noise-canceling technology. This will mean you won’t have to turn the volume quite so high so that you can hear your media clearly.
  • Switch up the styles of headphones you’re using. Put simply, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones once in a while. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Ear plugs, for instance, work remarkably well.
  • When you’re using your devices, make use of volume-limiting apps.
  • Make routine visits with us to get your hearing checked. We will help identify the general health of your hearing by having you screened.
  • When you’re not using your earbuds, minimize the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. Avoid exceedingly loud environments whenever possible.

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

So… are earbuds the enemy?

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

But your approach may need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds constantly. These earbuds could be harming your hearing and you may not even notice it. Your best defense, then, is being aware of the danger.

Step one is to moderate the volume and duration of your listening. But talking to us about the state of your hearing is the next step.

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.


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