Can Your Ears be Harmed by Earbuds?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever left your Earbuds in your pocket and they ended up going through the wash or maybe lost them altogether? Now it’s so boring going for a walk in the morning. You have a dull and dreary train ride to work. And the sound quality of your virtual meetings suffers significantly.

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

So when you finally find or purchase a working pair of earbuds, you’re grateful. Now your world is full of perfectly clear and vibrant audio, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds are all over the place these days, and individuals utilize them for so much more than just listening to their favorite tunes (though, naturally, they do that too).

Unfortunately, in part because they are so easy and so common, earbuds present some substantial risks for your hearing. If you’re using these devices all day every day, you may be putting your hearing at risk!

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 pair of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is slang for headphones). All that has now changed. Awesome sound quality can be produced in a really small space with contemporary earbuds. They were made popular by smartphone makers, who included a shiny new pair of earbuds with pretty much every smart device sold all through the 2010s (funny enough, they’re somewhat rare these days when you purchase a new phone).

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

It’s that combination of convenience, portability, and reliability that makes earbuds useful in a wide variety of contexts. Lots of people use them basically all of the time consequently. That’s where things get a bit tricky.

It’s all vibrations

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

In this activity, your brain is given 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 vibrations are infinitesimal, 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 allows your brain to make heads or tails of it all.

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

What are the risks of using earbuds?

Because of the appeal of earbuds, the risk of hearing damage due to loud noise is pretty 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 increase your risk of:

  • Not being able to communicate with your friends and family without wearing a hearing aid.
  • Developing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Developing sensorineural hearing loss with repeated exposure.
  • Experiencing social isolation or mental decline as a consequence of hearing loss.

There’s some evidence to suggest that using earbuds may introduce greater risks than using conventional headphones. The idea here is that the sound is directed toward the more sensitive parts of your ear. Some audiologists believe this while others still aren’t sure.

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

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

Maybe you think there’s an easy fix: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming program, I’ll simply lower the volume. Well… that would help. But it may not be the complete solution.

The reason is that it’s not only the volume that’s the problem, it’s the duration. Modest volume for five hours can be equally as damaging as top volume for five minutes.

So here’s how you can be a bit safer when you listen:

  • Use the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more minutes? Lower the volume.)
  • If you don’t want to worry about it, you may even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.
  • As a basic rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • Take frequent breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.
  • Be certain that your device has volume level alerts turned on. These warnings can alert you when your listening volume gets a little too high. Of course, then it’s your job to lower your volume, but it’s better than nothing!

Earbuds specifically, and headphones in general, can be kind of stressful for your ears. So give your ears a break. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) develop suddenly; it occurs slowly and over time. Which means, you may not even notice it happening, at least, not until it’s too late.

There is no cure and no way to reverse sensorineural hearing loss

Usually, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is irreversible. When the stereocilia (small hair-like cells in your ears that detect sound) get damaged by overexposure to loud sound, they can never be restored.

The damage accumulates gradually over time, and it usually starts as very limited in scope. That can make NIHL difficult to recognize. You might think your hearing is perfectly fine, all the while it is slowly getting worse and worse.

Sadly, NIHL can’t be cured or reversed. However, there are treatments designed to mitigate and reduce some of the most significant impacts of sensorineural hearing loss (the most prevalent of such treatments is a hearing aid). These treatments, however, are not able to counter the damage that’s been done.

So the ideal plan is prevention

That’s why so many hearing specialists put a considerable emphasis on prevention. And there are several ways to reduce your risk of hearing loss, and to practice good prevention, even while listening to your earbuds:

  • Use other kinds of headphones. That is, don’t use earbuds all day every day. Try using over-the-ear headphones also.
  • Use volume-limiting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, reduce the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. Avoid excessively loud settings whenever you can.
  • If you do need to go into an overly loud setting, utilize hearing protection. Ear plugs, for instance, work remarkably well.
  • Getting your hearing checked by us routinely is a good plan. We will be capable of hearing you get tested and monitor the general health of your hearing.
  • Many headphones and earbuds come with noise-canceling technology, try to use those. With this function, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without needing to crank it up quite so loud.

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

So… are earbuds the enemy?

Well…should I just chuck my earbuds in the garbage? Not Exactly! Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little gizmos are expensive!

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

When you listen, regulate the volume, that’s the first step. But speaking with us about the state of your hearing is the next step.

If you think you might have damage due to 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.