Could Earbuds be Harming Your Hearing?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever misplaced your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, unintentionally left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the laundry?) All of a sudden, your morning jog is a million times more boring. You have a dull and dreary train ride to work. And the sound quality of your virtual meetings suffers substantially.

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

So you’re so happy when you finally get a working pair of earbuds. The world is suddenly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear sound. Earbuds are all over the place right now, and individuals utilize them for a lot more than only listening to their favorite songs (though, naturally, they do that too).

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

Why earbuds are unique

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality audio from a set of headphones, you’d have to adopt a bulky, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is slang for headphones). That’s all now changed. Fabulous sound quality can be produced in a really small space with contemporary earbuds. They were popularized by smartphone manufacturers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with pretty much every smartphone sold all through the 2010s (funny enough, they’re pretty rare these days when you buy a new phone).

Partly because these sophisticated earbuds (with microphones, even) were so easily accessible, they started showing up everywhere. Whether you’re taking calls, listening to tunes, or watching movies, earbuds are one of the chief ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).

Earbuds are practical in a number of contexts because of their reliability, portability, and convenience. As a result, many people use them almost all the time. That’s where things get a little challenging.

It’s all vibrations

This is the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all basically the same thing. They’re just air molecules being vibrated by waves of pressure. It’s your brain that does all the work of translating those vibrations, sorting one kind of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

In this pursuit, 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 are not huge vibrations, they’re very small. Your inner ear is what actually identifies these vibrations. At that point, you have 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.

This is significant because it’s not music or drums that cause hearing damage, it’s volume. So whether you’re listening to NPR or Death Metal, the risk is the same.

What are the risks of using earbuds?

Because of the popularity of earbuds, the risk of hearing damage as a result of loud noise is very widespread. According to one study, over 1 billion young individuals are at risk of developing hearing loss across the globe.

Using earbuds can raise your danger of:

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

There might be a greater risk with earbuds than conventional headphones, according to some evidence. The reason might be that earbuds move sound right to the most sensitive parts of the ear. Some audiologists think this is the case while others still aren’t sure.

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

Duration is also an issue besides volume

You might be thinking, well, the solution is simple: I’ll simply lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes straight. Well… that would be helpful. But it might not be the complete answer.

This is because how long you listen is as important as how loud it is. Modest volume for five hours can be just as damaging as top volume for five minutes.

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

  • Activate volume warnings on your device. If your listening volume goes too high, a notification will alert you. Of course, then it’s your job to adjust your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
  • Quit listening right away if you hear ringing in your ears or your ears begin to hurt.
  • As a general rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • Make use of the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more minutes? Lower the volume.)
  • Take regular breaks. The more breaks (and the longer length 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.

Your ears can be stressed by using headphones, especially earbuds. So try to cut your ears some slack. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) happen suddenly; it progresses gradually and over time. The majority of the time people don’t even recognize that it’s happening until it’s too late.

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

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

The damage is barely noticeable, especially in the early stages, and progresses slowly over time. That can make NIHL difficult to recognize. It may be getting slowly worse, in the meantime, you believe it’s perfectly fine.

Regrettably, NIHL cannot be cured or reversed. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can mitigate the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. But the general damage that’s being done, sadly, is permanent.

So the best strategy is prevention

That’s why so many hearing specialists place a considerable focus on prevention. Here are several ways to continue to listen to your earbuds while reducing your risk of hearing loss with good prevention routines:

  • Change up the types of headphones you’re using. Put simply, switch from earbuds to other kinds of headphones once in a while. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.
  • Schedule regular visits with us to have your hearing tested. We will be capable of hearing you get assessed and track the general health of your hearing.
  • Some headphones and earbuds come with noise-canceling technology, try to use those. With this function, you will be capable of hearing your media more clearly without having to crank it up quite as loud.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Use earplugs, for example.
  • When you’re not using your earbuds, reduce the amount of noise damage your ears are subjected to. This could mean paying extra attention to the sound of your environment or avoiding overly loud situations.
  • Use volume-restricting apps on your phone and other devices.

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

So… are earbuds the enemy?

Well…should I just throw my earbuds in the garbage? Well, no. Especially not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little devices are not cheap!

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds regularly, you might want to consider varying your approach. You may not even realize that your hearing is being damaged by your earbuds. 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 tested 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.