Could Earbuds be Harming Your Ears?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever left your Earbuds in your pocket and they ended up going through the laundry or maybe lost them altogether? Now it’s so boring going for a walk in the morning. Your commute or bus ride is dreary and dull. And the sound 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 happy when you finally get a working set of earbuds. Now your life is full of completely clear and vibrant sound, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds are all over the place these days, and people use them for a lot more than simply listening to their favorite music (though, naturally, they do that too).

Unfortunately, partly because they’re so easy and so widely used, earbuds present some considerable risks for your hearing. Your hearing may be in jeopardy if you’re using earbuds a lot every day.

Why earbuds are unique

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a pair of headphones, you’d have to adopt a heavy, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). All that has now changed. Contemporary earbuds can supply stunning sound in a very small space. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone manufacturers popularized these little devices by supplying a pair with every new smartphone purchase (At present, you don’t see that so much).

These little earbuds (frequently they even have 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 leading ways you’re taking calls, streaming your favorite show, or listening to tunes.

It’s that combination of convenience, mobility, and dependability that makes earbuds practical in a large number of contexts. Lots of individuals use them basically all of the time as a result. That’s where things get a little challenging.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

In essence, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re simply waves of moving air molecules. It’s your brain that does all the work 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. Inside of your ear are tiny little hairs called stereocilia that vibrate when exposed to sound. These are not big vibrations, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what actually identifies these vibrations. At that point, you have a nerve in your ear that translates those vibrations into electrical impulses, and that’s what lets your brain make heads or tails of it all.

This is significant because it’s not music or drums that cause hearing loss, it’s volume. Which means the risk is the same whether you’re listening to Death Metal or an NPR program.

What are the risks of using earbuds?

The danger of hearing damage is widespread 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 risk of:

  • Advancing deafness due to sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Not being capable of communicating with your family and friends without wearing a hearing aid.
  • Experiencing sensorineural hearing loss with continued exposure.
  • Experiencing social isolation or mental decline as a consequence of hearing loss.

There may be a greater risk with earbuds than conventional 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 convinced.

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

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

You might be thinking, well, the fix is easy: I’ll simply turn down the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes in a row. Obviously, this would be a good plan. But it might not be the total answer.

The reason is that it’s not simply the volume that’s the problem, it’s the duration. Modest volume for five hours can be just as harmful as top volume for five minutes.

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

  • Activate volume warnings on your device. These warnings can inform you about when your listening volume gets a bit too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your job to reduce the volume.
  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately quit listening.
  • If you are listening at 80% volume, listen for a maximum of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn the volume down.
  • As a general rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • Take frequent breaks. The more breaks (and the longer length they are), the better.
  • If you don’t want to worry about it, you may even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.

Earbuds particularly, and headphones in general, can be kind of stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. Because sensorineural hearing loss typically happens slowly over time not immediately. Most of the time individuals don’t even recognize that it’s occurring until it’s too late.

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

Noise-generated Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is usually permanent. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear become irreparably damaged due to noise).

The damage is scarcely noticeable, especially in the early stages, and progresses slowly over time. NHIL can be difficult to identify as a result. It might be getting gradually worse, in the meantime, you believe it’s just fine.

There is currently 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. But the general damage that’s being done, regrettably, is permanent.

This means prevention is the best strategy

That’s why so many hearing specialists put a substantial emphasis on prevention. And there are multiple ways to lower your risk of hearing loss, and to practice good prevention, even while using your earbuds:

  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, reduce 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 scenarios.
  • Use multiple kinds of headphones. That is, don’t use earbuds all day every day. Over-the-ear headphones can also be used sometimes.
  • If you do have to go into an overly noisy setting, use ear protection. Ear plugs, for instance, work quite well.
  • Use earbuds and headphones that have noise-canceling technology. With this feature, you will be capable of hearing your media more clearly without needing to crank it up quite so loud.
  • Schedule regular visits with us to get your hearing tested. We will be able to help you get assessed and monitor the overall health of your hearing.
  • When you’re listening to your devices, make use of volume-limiting apps.

You will be able to protect your sense of hearing for many years by taking steps to prevent hearing loss, particularly NHIL. 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! Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little devices are expensive!

But your strategy may need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. These earbuds could be harming your hearing and you may not even realize it. Your best defense, then, is being aware of the danger.

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 believe 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.