Could Earbuds be Damaging Your Ears?

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. You have a dull and dreary commute to work. And your virtual meetings are suffering from poor audio quality.

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 set of earbuds. Now your world is full of completely clear and vibrant sound, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds have a lot of uses other than listening to music and a large percentage of individuals utilize them.

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

Why earbuds are unique

In the past, you would need cumbersome, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-quality listening experience. That’s all now changed. Modern earbuds can supply stunning sound in a very small space. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone makers popularized these little devices by supplying a pair with every new smartphone purchase (Presently, you don’t see that as much).

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

It’s that mixture of convenience, portability, and dependability that makes earbuds practical in a wide variety of contexts. Lots of people use them pretty much all of the time as a result. That’s where things get a bit tricky.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

This is the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all essentially the same thing. They’re just air molecules being vibrated by waves of pressure. Your brain will then sort the vibrations into categories like “voice” or “music”.

Your inner ear is the mediator for this process. There are tiny hairs along your ear that vibrate when exposed to sound. These are not big vibrations, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what really identifies these vibrations. At this stage, you have a nerve in your ear that translates those vibrations into electrical impulses, and that’s what allows your brain to figure it all out.

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

The dangers of earbud use

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.

Using earbuds can raise your risk of:

  • Developing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Continued exposure increasing the advancement of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Experiencing social isolation or cognitive decline as a consequence of hearing loss.
  • Not being able to communicate with your friends and family without using a hearing aid.

There might be a greater risk with earbuds than traditional headphones, according to some evidence. The reason might be that earbuds move sound right to the most sensitive components of the ear. But the jury’s still out on this, and not all audiologists are convinced.

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

Duration is also an issue besides volume

You might be thinking, well, the fix is easy: I’ll just turn down the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite program for 24 episodes in a row. Well… that would help. But it might not be the complete answer.

The reason is that it’s not only the volume that’s the problem, it’s the duration. Think about it like this: listening at max volume for five minutes will harm your ears. But listening at medium volume for five hours might also harm your ears.

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

  • Enable volume alerts on your device. These warnings can let you know when your listening volume gets a bit too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to lower the volume.
  • If you’re listening at 80% volume, listen for a max of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn the volume down.
  • Take frequent breaks. The more breaks (and the longer length they are), the better.
  • If your ears start to experience pain or ringing, immediately quit listening.
  • Some smart devices allow you to lower the max volume so you won’t even need to think about it.
  • As a basic rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.

Earbuds particularly, and headphones in general, can be kind of stressful for your ears. So give your ears a break. Because sensorineural hearing loss generally occurs slowly over time not immediately. Which means, you may not even acknowledge it happening, at least, not until it’s too late.

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

Noise-generated Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is typically permanent. When the stereocilia (small hair-like cells in your ears that detect sound) get damaged by overexposure to loud sound, they can never be restored.

The damage accumulates slowly over time, and it usually starts as very limited in scope. That can make NIHL difficult to detect. It may be getting progressively worse, in the meantime, you believe it’s just fine.

Unfortunately, NIHL cannot be cured or reversed. Still, there are treatments created to mitigate and minimize some of the most considerable impacts of sensorineural hearing loss (the most popular of such treatments is a hearing aid). But the general damage that’s being done, regrettably, is permanent.

This means prevention is the best approach

That’s why so many hearing specialists put a considerable focus on prevention. And there are multiple ways to reduce your risk of hearing loss, and to exercise good prevention, even while listening to your earbuds:

  • Make routine visits with us to have your hearing examined. We will help establish the overall health of your hearing by getting you screened.
  • Use other kinds of headphones. That is, don’t wear earbuds all day every day. Over-the-ear headphones can also be used sometimes.
  • Use volume-limiting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be around loud noises. Use earplugs, for example.
  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, limit the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. Avoid exceedingly loud settings whenever possible.
  • Utilize earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling technology. With this function, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without needing to turn it up quite as loud.

You will be able to preserve your sense of hearing for many years by taking measures to prevent hearing loss, especially NHIL. It can also help make treatments such as hearing aids more effective when you do eventually need them.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

Well…should I just chuck my earbuds in the rubbish? Not Exactly! Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little gizmos are not cheap!

But your approach 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. Your best defense, then, is knowing about the danger.

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

If you think you may have damage due to 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. Schedule an appointment to see if hearing aids could benefit you.