Can Your Ears be Damaged by Earbuds?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever lost your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, inadvertently left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the laundry?) Now it’s so boring going for a run in the morning. You have a dull and dreary train ride to work. And your virtual meetings are suffering from bad audio quality.

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

So you’re so relieved when you finally get a working set of earbuds. Now your life is full of perfectly clear and vibrant sound, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds are all over the place nowadays, and people use them for a lot more than only listening to their favorite tunes (though, of course, they do that too).

But, unfortunately, earbuds can present some considerable risks to your hearing because so many people are using them for so many listening tasks. Your hearing could be at risk if you’re using earbuds a lot every day.

Earbuds are different for numerous reasons

In previous years, you would require cumbersome, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-fidelity listening experience. All that has now changed. Fabulous sound quality can be created in a really small space with modern earbuds. They were popularized 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 rather rare these days when you buy a new phone).

Partly because these high-quality earbuds (with microphones, even) were so readily available, they started showing up all over the place. Whether you’re out and about, or hanging out at home, earbuds are one of the main ways you’re taking calls, streaming your favorite show, or listening to tunes.

It’s that mixture of convenience, portability, and reliability that makes earbuds practical in a wide variety of contexts. Lots of individuals use them pretty much all of the time consequently. And that’s become somewhat of a problem.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

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

Your inner ear is the mediator for this process. There are tiny hairs inside of your ear that oscillate when exposed to sound. These are not big vibrations, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what really identifies these vibrations. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they are transformed into electrical impulses by a nerve in your ear.

This is important 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.

The dangers of earbud use

The danger of hearing damage is prevalent because of the appeal of earbuds. 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 utilize earbuds at high volume, you raise your danger of:

  • Hearing loss contributing to cognitive decline and social isolation.
  • Needing to utilize a hearing aid so that you can communicate with friends and loved ones.
  • Repeated subjection increasing the development of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss leading to deafness.

There could be a greater risk with earbuds than traditional headphones, according to some evidence. The thinking here is that the sound is funneled directly toward the more sensitive components of your ear. But the jury’s still out on this, and not all audiologists are on board.

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

Duration is also an issue besides volume

Maybe you think there’s a simple fix: I’ll simply turn down the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes straight. Obviously, this would be a smart plan. But there’s more to it than that.

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

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

  • 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.
  • If you don’t want to think about it, you might even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • Enable volume warnings on your device. If your listening volume gets too high, a notification will alert you. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to reduce the volume.
  • Take frequent breaks. The more breaks (and the longer length they are), the better.
  • Use the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more time? Lower the volume.)

Your ears can be stressed by using headphones, particularly earbuds. So try to cut your ears some slack. Because sensorineural hearing loss typically happens slowly over time not immediately. Which means, you may not even observe it occurring, at least, not until it’s too late.

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

Usually, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is irreversible. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear become irreparably destroyed due to noise).

The damage accumulates gradually over time, and it normally begins as very limited in scope. That can make NIHL hard to recognize. It might be getting gradually worse, in the meantime, you believe it’s just fine.

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

So the ideal plan is prevention

This is why prevention is stressed by so many hearing specialists. And there are a number of ways to reduce your risk of hearing loss, and to exercise good prevention, even while listening to your earbuds:

  • Getting your hearing tested by us routinely is a smart plan. We will be able to help you get tested and track the general health of your hearing.
  • Some headphones and earbuds come with noise-canceling technology, try to utilize those. This will mean you won’t need to crank the volume quite so loud so that you can hear your media clearly.
  • Change up the styles of headphones you’re wearing. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones sometimes. Over-the-ear headphones can also be used sometimes.
  • When you’re listening to your devices, use volume-limiting apps.
  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, minimize 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.
  • Wear hearing protection if you’re going to be around loud noises. Use earplugs, for instance.

You will be able to preserve your sense of hearing for many years by taking measures to prevent hearing loss, especially NHIL. It can also help make treatments such as hearing aids more effective when you do eventually need them.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

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

But your approach may need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds constantly. These earbuds could be damaging your hearing and you might not even notice it. Your best defense, then, is being aware of the danger.

When you listen, regulate the volume, that’s the first step. The second step is to consult with us about the state of your hearing today.

If you think you might have damage as a result of overuse of earbuds, call us right away! We Can Help!

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The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive a personalized free hearing test and hearing loss consultation, call today to set up an appointment.

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