Could Earbuds be Damaging Your Ears?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

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

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

So when you finally find or buy a working set of earbuds, you’re thankful. The world is suddenly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear audio. Earbuds are all over the place right now, and individuals use them for a lot more than just listening to their favorite songs (though, obviously, they do that too).

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

Why earbuds are different

In previous years, you would require bulky, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-fidelity listening experience. That’s all now changed. Modern earbuds can provide fantastic sound in a tiny space. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone manufacturers popularized these little devices by supplying a pair with every new smartphone purchase (Presently, you don’t see that as much).

These little earbuds (sometimes they even have microphones) started to show up all over the place because they were so high-quality and accessible. Whether you’re talking on the phone, listening to music, or watching movies, earbuds are one of the chief 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. As a result, many people use them pretty much 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 heavy lifting of interpreting those vibrations, sorting one kind of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

In this pursuit, your brain receives a big assist from your inner ear. Inside of your ear are very small hairs called stereocilia that oscillate when subjected to sound. These are not big vibrations, they’re very small. 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.

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

The dangers of earbud use

Because of the popularity of earbuds, the risk of hearing damage as a result of loud noise is very prevalent. Across the globe, more than a billion people are at risk of developing hearing loss, according to one study.

On an individual level, when you use earbuds at high volume, you increase your risk of:

  • Continued exposure increasing the development of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Advancing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Needing to utilize a hearing aid so that you can communicate with family and friends.
  • Hearing loss contributing to cognitive decline and social isolation.

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 funneled directly toward the more sensitive parts of your ear. But the jury’s still out on this, and not all audiologists are on board.

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

Duration is also an issue besides volume

You may be thinking, well, the solution is simple: 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.

This is because how long you listen is as important as how loud it is. Think about it like this: listening at top volume for five minutes will damage your ears. But listening at moderate volume for five hours could also damage your ears.

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

  • Quit listening immediately if you experience ringing in your ears or your ears begin to ache.
  • Be certain that your device has volume level alerts enabled. These warnings can alert you when your listening volume goes a bit too high. Naturally, then it’s up to you to lower your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
  • Give yourself plenty of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer length they are), the better.
  • As a basic 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 time? Reduce the volume.)
  • Many smart devices let you lower the max volume so you won’t even need to worry about it.

Earbuds particularly, and headphones in general, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. Because sensorineural hearing loss typically happens slowly over time not suddenly. The majority of the time people don’t even realize that it’s occurring until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent

Noise-generated Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is usually permanent. 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 accumulates slowly over time, and it usually starts as very limited in scope. NHIL can be hard to detect as a result. It may be getting slowly worse, in the meantime, you think it’s just fine.

Sadly, NIHL can’t be cured or reversed. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can minimize the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. These treatments, however, can’t reverse the damage that’s been done.

This means prevention is the best strategy

This is why prevention is emphasized by so many hearing specialists. Here are some ways to continue to listen to your earbuds while decreasing your risk of hearing loss with good prevention routines:

  • When you’re not using your earbuds, limit the amount of noise damage your ears are subjected to. Avoid excessively loud settings whenever possible.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Ear plugs, for instance, work exceptionally well.
  • Use volume-controlling apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Having your hearing tested by us regularly is a smart plan. We will be capable of hearing you get assessed and track the general health of your hearing.
  • Change up the types of headphones you’re using. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other kinds of headphones once in a while. Try utilizing over-the-ear headphones too.
  • Use earbuds and headphones that have noise-canceling tech. This will mean you won’t need to crank the volume quite so loud in order to hear your media clearly.

Preventing hearing loss, particularly NIHL, can help you protect your sense of hearing for years longer. It can also help make treatments such as hearing aids more effective when you do ultimately require them.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

Well…should I just throw my earbuds in the rubbish? Not Exactly! Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little devices are not cheap!

But your approach could need to be changed if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. These earbuds could be damaging your hearing and you might not even recognize it. Knowing the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

Step one is to moderate the volume and duration of your listening. Step two is to consult with us about the state of your hearing today.

If you believe 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.

Questions? Talk To Us.