Can Your Ears be Harmed 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 sweatshirt that went through the washer and dryer?) 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 bad sound quality.

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

So you’re so relieved when you finally get a working set of earbuds. Now your world is full of completely clear and vibrant audio, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds have a lot of uses other than listening to tunes and a large percentage of individuals utilize them.

But, regrettably, earbuds can present some substantial risks to your hearing because so many people are using them for so many listening activities. Your hearing may be at risk if you’re wearing earbuds a lot every day.

Earbuds are different for numerous reasons

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality audio from a set of headphones, you’d have to adopt a heavy, cumbersome pair of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). That isn’t necessarily the case anymore. Modern earbuds can provide stunning sound in a tiny space. They were popularized by smartphone manufacturers, who included a shiny new pair of earbuds with pretty much every smartphone sold all through the 2010s (Currently, you don’t find that so much).

These little earbuds (frequently they even include microphones) began showing up everywhere because they were so high-quality and available. Whether you’re out and about, or hanging out at home, earbuds are one of the main ways you’re talking on the phone, viewing your favorite show, or listening to music.

Earbuds are practical in quite a few contexts because of their reliability, portability, and convenience. Because of this, many consumers use them almost all the time. That’s where things get a bit tricky.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

Here’s the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all basically the same thing. They’re simply 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 tiny little hairs called stereocilia that vibrate when exposed to sound. These are not big vibrations, they’re very small. Your inner ear is what really recognizes these vibrations. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they’re converted 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 exactly the same.

The risks of earbud use

The danger 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.

Using earbuds can raise your risk of:

  • Not being capable of communicating with your friends and family without wearing a hearing aid.
  • Hearing loss contributing to cognitive decline and social isolation.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss leading to deafness.
  • Repeated exposure increasing the development of sensorineural hearing loss.

There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds may present greater risks than using regular headphones. The reason might be that earbuds direct sound right to the most sensitive components of the ear. But the jury’s still out on this, and not all audiologists are convinced.

Besides, what’s more relevant is the volume, and any set of headphones is able to deliver dangerous levels of sound.

It isn’t simply volume, it’s duration, too

You might be thinking, well, the fix is simple: I’ll just lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite program for 24 episodes in a row. Naturally, this would be a good plan. But it might not be the complete answer.

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

When you listen, here are some ways to make it safer:

  • If you don’t want to worry about it, you may even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • Take regular breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.
  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.
  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • Make sure that your device has volume level warnings enabled. If your listening volume gets too high, a warning will alert you. Once you hear this alert, it’s your job to lower the volume.
  • Use the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more minutes? Lower the volume.)

Your ears can be stressed by using headphones, specifically earbuds. So give your ears a break. Because sensorineural hearing loss typically happens gradually over time not immediately. The majority of the time individuals don’t even notice that it’s happening until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is irreversible

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

The damage is hardly noticeable, especially in the early stages, and develops gradually over time. That can make NIHL hard to detect. It might be getting gradually worse, in the meantime, you believe it’s just fine.

Unfortunately, NIHL cannot be cured or reversed. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can minimize the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. But the overall damage that’s being done, regrettably, is irreversible.

So the ideal strategy is prevention

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

  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, limit the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. Avoid overly loud settings whenever possible.
  • Use other types of headphones. That is, don’t use earbuds all day every day. Over-the-ear headphones can also be used sometimes.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Ear plugs, for example, work exceptionally well.
  • Use earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling technology. With this feature, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without having to crank it up quite as loud.
  • Getting your hearing tested by us regularly is a smart plan. We will help establish the overall health of your hearing by getting you screened.
  • When you’re listening to your devices, make use of volume-limiting apps.

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

So… are earbuds the enemy?

Well…should I just chuck my earbuds in the trash? Well, no. Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little devices are expensive!

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds regularly, you might want to consider varying your strategy. You may not even realize that your hearing is being harmed by your earbuds. Your best defense, then, is knowing about the danger.

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

If you believe you may 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.