Can Your Hearing be Damaged 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? Now it’s so boring going for a run in the morning. Your commute or bus ride is dreary and dull. And the audio quality of your virtual meetings suffers considerably.

The old saying “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” applies here.

So you’re so relieved when you finally get a working pair of earbuds. The world is instantly vibrant again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear audio. Earbuds are all over the place right now, and people use them for so much more than just listening to their favorite songs (though, obviously, they do that too).

But, unfortunately, earbuds can present some significant risks to your ears because so many people use them for so many listening activities. If you’re using these devices all day every day, you could be putting your hearing in danger!

Why earbuds are unique

In the past, you would need cumbersome, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-fidelity listening experience. That isn’t necessarily the case anymore. Modern earbuds can provide stunning sound in a very small space. They were popularized by smartphone manufacturers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with basically every smart device sold throughout the 2010s (amusing enough, they’re rather rare nowadays when you purchase a new phone).

In part because these high-quality earbuds (with microphones, even) were so easily accessible, they began showing up everywhere. Whether you’re out and about, or hanging out at home, earbuds are one of the leading ways you’re taking calls, viewing your favorite show, or listening to tunes.

It’s that mixture of convenience, mobility, and dependability that makes earbuds practical in a large number of contexts. Consequently, many people use them almost all the time. And that’s become a bit of a problem.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

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. Your brain will then classify the vibrations into categories like “voice” or “music”.

Your inner ear is the intermediary for this process. There are very small hairs inside of your ear that vibrate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are minute, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what really recognizes these vibrations. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they’re converted into electrical signals by a nerve in your ear.

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

The dangers of earbud use

Because of the appeal of earbuds, the danger of hearing damage as a result of loud noise is quite widespread. 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 increase your risk of:

  • Needing to use a hearing aid so that you can communicate with family and friends.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss leading to deafness.
  • Repeated exposure increasing the advancement of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Going through social isolation or cognitive decline due to hearing loss.

There’s some evidence to suggest that using earbuds may introduce greater risks than using conventional headphones. The reason might be that earbuds move sound right to the most sensitive parts of the ear. But the jury’s still out on this, and not all audiologists are on board.

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

It’s not only volume, it’s duration, also

Perhaps you think there’s an easy fix: I’ll just lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes straight. Well… that would help. But it might not be the total solution.

This is because how long you listen is as crucial as how loud it is. Moderate volume for five hours can be just as harmful as max volume for five minutes.

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

  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • Make sure that your device has volume level alerts turned on. These warnings can inform you about when your listening volume gets a bit too high. Of course, then it’s your job to adjust your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
  • Stop listening immediately if you hear ringing in your ears or your ears begin to hurt.
  • Take frequent breaks. It’s best to take regular and lengthy breaks.
  • 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.
  • Many smart devices let you lower the max volume so you won’t even have to worry about it.

Earbuds specifically, and headphones in general, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So give your ears a break. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) develop all of a sudden; it progresses gradually and over time. Which means, you may not even observe it occurring, at least, not 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 become irreversibly damaged due to noise).

The damage is barely noticeable, particularly in the early stages, and develops slowly over time. That can make NIHL difficult to detect. You may think your hearing is just fine, all the while it is gradually getting worse and worse.

There is presently no cure or capability of reversing NIHL. 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.

So the ideal strategy is prevention

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

  • Many headphones and earbuds incorporate noise-canceling technology, try to utilize those. With this feature, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without needing to crank it up quite as loud.
  • Schedule regular visits with us to get your hearing tested. We will help establish the general health of your hearing by getting you screened.
  • When you’re not using your earbuds, minimize the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. Avoid overly loud settings whenever possible.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Ear plugs, for example, work exceptionally well.
  • When you’re using your devices, make use of volume-limiting apps.
  • Use other types of headphones. Put simply, switch from earbuds to other kinds of headphones sometimes. Over-the-ear headphones can also be used sometimes.

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

So… are earbuds the enemy?

Well…should I just toss my earbuds in the rubbish? Not Exactly! Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can be expensive.

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds regularly, you may want to consider changing your strategy. You may not even recognize that your hearing is being damaged by your earbuds. Knowing the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

Step one is to control the volume and duration of your listening. But speaking with us about the state of your hearing is the next step.

If you think you may have damage caused by 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.