Can Your Hearing be Harmed by Earbuds?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever lost your earbuds? (Or, maybe, inadvertently left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the laundry?) Now it’s so boring going for a jog in the morning. You have a dull and dreary commute to work. 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 when you finally find or buy a working pair of earbuds, you’re thankful. The world is suddenly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear audio. Earbuds have so many uses other than listening to music and a large percentage of people use them.

Regrettably, partly because they are so easy and so ubiquitous, earbuds present some substantial risks for your ears. Your hearing could be in jeopardy if you’re wearing earbuds a lot every day.

Why earbuds are unique

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 fantastic sound in a tiny space. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone makers popularized these little devices by offering a pair with every new smartphone purchase (Currently, you don’t find that as much).

These little earbuds (frequently they even have microphones) began showing 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 leading ways you’re taking calls, viewing your favorite program, or listening to music.

Earbuds are practical in a number of contexts because of their reliability, portability, and convenience. As a result, many consumers use them pretty much all the time. And that’s become a bit of a problem.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

Basically, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re simply waves of moving air molecules. It’s your brain that does all the heavy lifting of interpreting those vibrations, grouping one kind of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

In this endeavor, 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 large vibrations, they’re very small. These vibrations are recognized by your inner ear. At this stage, you have a nerve in your ear that translates those vibrations into electrical signals, and that’s what lets your brain figure it all out.

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.

The risks of earbud use

The risk of hearing damage is prevalent because of the popularity of earbuds. 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:

  • Needing to utilize a hearing aid so that you can communicate with family and friends.
  • Developing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Hearing loss contributing to mental decline and social isolation.
  • Developing sensorineural hearing loss with continued exposure.

There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds might present greater risks than using conventional headphones. The idea here is that the sound is funneled directly toward the more sensitive parts of your 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 set of headphones is capable of delivering hazardous levels of sound.

Duration is also an issue 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 just lower the volume. Of course, this would be a smart idea. But it might not be the total solution.

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

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

  • Quit listening immediately if you notice ringing in your ears or your ears begin to ache.
  • Give yourself lots of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.
  • As a basic rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • Some smart devices allow you to decrease the max volume so you won’t even have to think about it.
  • Use the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more minutes? Lower the volume.)
  • Be certain that your device has volume level warnings turned on. If your listening volume goes too high, a warning will alert you. Once you hear this alert, it’s your job to lower the volume.

Earbuds specifically, and headphones generally, can be kind of stressful for your ears. So give your ears a break. Because sensorineural hearing loss usually happens slowly over time not immediately. Which means, you may not even acknowledge it happening, at least, not until it’s too late.

There’s no cure and no way to reverse sensorineural hearing loss

Typically, 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 scarcely noticeable, especially in the early stages, and develops slowly over time. That can make NIHL difficult to detect. It may be getting slowly worse, all the while, you believe it’s perfectly fine.

There is currently no cure or capability of reversing NIHL. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can mitigate the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. These treatments, however, can’t reverse the damage that’s been done.

So the ideal strategy is prevention

That’s why so many hearing specialists place a considerable emphasis on prevention. And there are multiple ways to lower your risk of hearing loss, and to practice good prevention, even while using your earbuds:

  • Use volume-restricting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Limit the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you’re not wearing earbuds. Avoid overly loud settings whenever you can.
  • Change up the styles of headphones you’re using. Put simply, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones sometimes. Try utilizing over-the-ear headphones too.
  • Utilize earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling tech. This will mean you won’t have to turn the volume quite so high so that you can hear your media clearly.
  • Wear hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Ear plugs, for instance, work quite well.
  • Make regular visits with us to have your hearing checked. We will be capable of hearing you get assessed and monitor the overall health of your hearing.

Preventing hearing loss, especially NIHL, can help you protect 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?

So does all this mean you should grab your nearest set of earbuds and throw them in the trash? Well, no. Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can be expensive.

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds regularly, you may want to think about varying your approach. You may not even recognize that your hearing is being damaged by your earbuds. Your best defense, then, is knowing about the danger.

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

If you believe you might have damage because of 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.