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?) Now it’s so boring going for a walk in the morning. You have a dull and dreary commute to work. And your virtual meetings are suffering from poor sound quality.

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

So you’re so happy when you finally get a working pair of earbuds. Now your world is full of completely clear and vibrant audio, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds have so many uses other than listening to music and a large percentage of people use them.

Unfortunately, in part because they are so easy and so widely used, earbuds present some considerable risks for your hearing. If you’re using these devices all day every day, you could be putting your hearing in jeopardy!

Earbuds are different for numerous reasons

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). That’s all now changed. Awesome sound quality can be created in a really small space with modern earbuds. They were popularized by smartphone manufacturers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with basically every smartphone sold throughout the 2010s (At present, you don’t find that as much).

In part because these high-quality earbuds (with microphones, even) were so easily accessible, they started showing up all over the place. Whether you’re out and about, or hanging out at home, earbuds are one of the principal ways you’re talking on the phone, streaming your favorite show, or listening to music.

Earbuds are practical in quite a few contexts because of their dependability, portability, and convenience. Lots of people use them basically all of the time consequently. That’s where things get a bit challenging.

It’s all vibrations

This is the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all essentially the same thing. They’re just air molecules being moved by waves of pressure. It’s your brain that does all the heavy lifting of interpreting those vibrations, organizing one kind 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 tiny little hairs known as stereocilia that vibrate when subjected to sound. These vibrations are minute, they’re tiny. These vibrations are recognized by your inner ear. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they’re converted into electrical impulses by a nerve in your ear.

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

The dangers of earbud use

The risk of hearing damage is widespread 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 use earbuds at high volume, you increase your risk of:

  • Continued subjection increasing the development of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Advancing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Needing to use a hearing aid so that you can communicate with friends and loved ones.
  • Going through social isolation or cognitive decline as a consequence of hearing loss.

There’s some evidence suggesting 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 biggest consideration, and both kinds of headphones can create hazardous levels of that.

It’s not just volume, it’s duration, also

You might be thinking, well, the fix is easy: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming show, 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 simply the volume that’s the issue, 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:

  • Make use of the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more minutes? Reduce the volume.)
  • Be certain that your device has volume level alerts turned on. These warnings can inform you about when your listening volume goes a little too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your job to reduce the volume.
  • Take regular breaks. It’s best to take frequent and extended breaks.
  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.
  • Some smart devices allow you to lower the max volume so you won’t even have to worry about it.
  • As a basic rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.

Earbuds particularly, and headphones generally, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (typically) develop all of a sudden; it progresses slowly and over time. Which means, you may not even acknowledge it occurring, at least, not until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent

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 progresses slowly over time. That can make NIHL hard to detect. You may think your hearing is just fine, all the while it is slowly getting worse and worse.

There is presently 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, are not able to counter the damage that’s been done.

So the best plan is prevention

This is why prevention is emphasized by so many hearing specialists. And there are multiple ways to reduce your risk of hearing loss, and to practice good prevention, even while using your earbuds:

  • When you’re listening to your devices, use volume-limiting apps.
  • Use multiple kinds of headphones. Put simply, switch from earbuds to other kinds of headphones now and then. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.
  • Wear hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Use earplugs, for instance.
  • Use earbuds and headphones that have noise-canceling technology. With this feature, you will be capable of hearing your media more clearly without needing to turn it up quite so loud.
  • 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 surroundings or avoiding overly loud scenarios.
  • Getting your hearing checked by us regularly is a smart plan. We will help establish the overall health of your hearing by getting you screened.

Preventing hearing loss, especially NIHL, can help you preserve your sense of hearing for years longer. And, if you do end up needing treatment, like 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? Not Exactly! Particularly 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 may want to think about changing your strategy. You may not even recognize that your hearing is being damaged by your earbuds. Your best defense, then, is being aware of the danger.

When you listen, limit the volume, that’s the first step. Step two is to talk to us about the state of your hearing right away.

If you think you might have damage as a result 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.