Could Earbuds be Harming Your Ears?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever misplaced your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, accidentally left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the laundry?) Now it’s so boring going for a jog in the morning. Your commute or train ride is dreary and dull. And the sound quality of your virtual meetings suffers significantly.

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

So when you finally find or purchase a working pair of earbuds, you’re thankful. The world is instantly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear audio. Earbuds have a lot of uses other than listening to music and a large percentage of people use them.

Unfortunately, partly because they are so easy and so ubiquitous, earbuds present some considerable risks for your hearing. If you’re using these devices all day every day, you may be putting your hearing at risk!

Earbuds are different for several reasons

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality audio from a pair of headphones, you’d have to adopt a heavy, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is slang for headphones). All that has now changed. Fabulous sound quality can be produced in a very small space with contemporary earbuds. They were popularized by smartphone makers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with basically every smartphone sold all through the 2010s (amusing enough, they’re pretty rare nowadays when you purchase a new phone).

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

Earbuds are useful 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.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

Here’s the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all essentially the same thing. They’re just waves of moving air molecules. It’s your brain that does all the heavy lifting of interpreting those vibrations, grouping 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. There are very small hairs along your ear that vibrate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are minute, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what really identifies these vibrations. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they are converted into electrical impulses by a nerve in your ear.

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

What are the dangers of using earbuds?

The danger of hearing damage is prevalent because of the appeal 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 raise your danger of:

  • Experiencing sensorineural hearing loss with repeated exposure.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss leading to deafness.
  • Hearing loss contributing to cognitive decline and social isolation.
  • Needing to utilize a hearing aid so that you can communicate with family and friends.

There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds may introduce greater risks than using conventional 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 important is the volume, and any pair of headphones is able to deliver hazardous levels of sound.

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

You may be thinking, well, the fix is easy: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming program, I’ll simply reduce the volume. Naturally, this would be a smart plan. But there’s more to it than that.

The reason is that it’s not simply the volume that’s the issue, it’s the duration. Moderate volume for five hours can be equally as damaging as top volume for five minutes.

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

  • If your ears start to experience pain or ringing, immediately quit listening.
  • Enable volume warnings on your device. These warnings can alert you when your listening volume gets a bit too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to lower the volume.
  • If you are listening at 80% volume, listen for a maximum of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen longer turn down the volume.
  • Take frequent breaks. The more breaks (and the longer length they are), the better.
  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • If you don’t want to think about it, you might even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.

Earbuds specifically, and headphones in general, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (typically) happen suddenly; it occurs gradually and over time. Which means, you may not even notice 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 barely noticeable, especially in the early stages, and develops gradually over time. NHIL can be difficult to identify as a result. It might be getting progressively worse, in the meantime, you think it’s perfectly fine.

There is presently no cure or ability to reverse NIHL. Still, there are treatments designed to offset and decrease some of the most considerable effects of sensorineural hearing loss (the most popular of such treatments is a hearing aid). These treatments, however, can’t reverse the damage that’s been done.

This means prevention is the best strategy

This is why prevention is stressed by so many hearing specialists. Here are a few ways to keep listening to your earbuds while lowering your risk of hearing loss with good prevention practices:

  • Use volume-limiting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Make regular visits with us to have your hearing checked. We will help establish the general health of your hearing by getting you screened.
  • Use earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling technology. With this function, you will be capable of hearing your media more clearly without having to turn it up quite as loud.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be around loud noises. Ear plugs, for example, work remarkably well.
  • Change up the styles of headphones you’re wearing. That is, don’t wear earbuds all day every day. Try using over-the-ear headphones also.
  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, minimize the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. Avoid excessively loud settings whenever you can.

You will be able to protect your sense of hearing for many years by taking steps to prevent hearing loss, especially NHIL. And, if you do end up needing treatment, such as hearing aids, they will be more effective.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

So does all this mean you should grab your nearest pair of earbuds and throw them in the trash? Not Exactly! Especially not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little devices are not cheap!

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

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

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.