Can Your Ears be Harmed by Earbuds?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever forgotten your Earbuds in your pocket and they ended up going through the wash or maybe lost them altogether? Suddenly, your morning jog is a million times more boring. You have a dull and dreary commute to work. And your virtual meetings are suffering from bad sound quality.

Often, you don’t recognize how valuable something is until you have to live without 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 have so many uses other than listening to tunes and a large percentage of people use them.

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

Why earbuds are different

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality audio from a set of headphones, you’d have to use a heavy, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). That isn’t always the situation anymore. Incredible sound quality can be produced in a very small space with contemporary earbuds. 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 so much).

In part because these sophisticated earbuds (with microphones, even) were so readily available, they began showing up everywhere. Whether you’re talking on the phone, listening to tunes, or watching Netflix, earbuds are one of the chief ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).

It’s that mixture of convenience, mobility, and dependability that makes earbuds useful in a wide variety of contexts. As a result, many consumers use them almost all the time. And that’s become a bit of a problem.

It’s all vibrations

Basically, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re just air molecules being vibrated by waves of pressure. It’s your brain that does all the work of interpreting those vibrations, grouping one kind of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

Your inner ear is the mediator for this process. Inside of your ear are very small hairs known as stereocilia that vibrate when subjected to sound. These vibrations are infinitesimal, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what really recognizes these vibrations. At that point, you have a nerve in your ear that translates those vibrations into electrical impulses, and that’s what allows your brain to make heads or tails of it all.

It’s not what type of sound but volume that causes hearing loss. Which means the risk is the same whether you’re listening to Death Metal or an NPR podcast.

The risks of earbud use

Because of the appeal of earbuds, the risk of hearing damage due to loud noise is fairly widespread. 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 danger of:

  • Developing sensorineural hearing loss with continued exposure.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss leading to deafness.
  • Not being able to communicate with your friends and family without using a hearing aid.
  • Hearing loss contributing to mental decline and social isolation.

There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds might introduce greater risks than using regular headphones. The idea here is that the sound is funneled directly toward the more sensitive parts of your ear. Some audiologists believe this while others still aren’t sure.

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

Duration is also a concern besides volume

You might be thinking, well, the fix is easy: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming show, I’ll simply reduce the volume. Well… that would help. But it might not be the total answer.

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

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

  • If your ears start to experience pain or ringing, immediately quit listening.
  • It’s a good idea not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • Give yourself lots of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.
  • If you’re listening at 80% volume, listen for a max of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn down the volume.
  • Activate volume alerts on your device. These warnings can alert you when your listening volume goes a little too high. Naturally, then it’s your job to lower your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
  • If you don’t want to worry about it, you might even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.

Earbuds particularly, and headphones generally, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So give your ears a break. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) happen suddenly; it occurs gradually and over time. Which means, you may not even acknowledge it occurring, at least, not until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is irreversible

Typically, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is permanent. When the stereocilia (small hair-like cells in your ears that detect sound) get damaged by too much exposure to loud sound, they can never recover.

The damage is barely noticeable, especially in the early stages, and progresses slowly over time. That can make NIHL difficult to recognize. It might be getting gradually worse, all the while, you believe it’s just fine.

Sadly, NIHL can’t be cured or reversed. However, there are treatments created to offset and reduce some of the most significant effects of sensorineural hearing loss (the most prevalent of such treatments is a hearing aid). These treatments, however, can’t reverse the damage that’s been done.

This means prevention is the most useful strategy

That’s why so many hearing specialists place a significant emphasis on prevention. And there are a number of ways to lower your risk of hearing loss, and to practice good prevention, even while listening to your earbuds:

  • Switch up the styles of headphones you’re using. Put simply, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones now and then. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.
  • When you’re using your devices, use volume-limiting apps.
  • Make regular visits with us to have your hearing checked. We will be able to help you get assessed and track the general health of your hearing.
  • Use earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling technology. This will mean you won’t need to crank the volume quite so loud in order to hear your media clearly.
  • Wear hearing protection if you’re going to be around loud noises. Ear plugs, for example, work exceptionally well.
  • Reduce the amount of damage your ears are encountering while you’re not wearing earbuds. Avoid exceedingly loud settings whenever possible.

You will be able to protect your sense of hearing for many years by taking measures to prevent hearing loss, especially NHIL. And, if you do end up requiring 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? Well, no. Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little gizmos are not cheap!

But your strategy may need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. You may not even recognize that your hearing is being harmed by your earbuds. 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 talk to us about the state of your hearing today.

If you think 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.

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