Could Earbuds be Harming Your Ears?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever lost your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, unintentionally left them in the pocket of a sweatshirt that went through the washer and dryer?) Now it’s so boring going for a jog in the morning. You have a dull and dreary train ride to work. 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 when you finally find or buy a working set of earbuds, you’re grateful. Now your world is full of perfectly clear and vibrant sound, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds are all over the place right now, and people utilize them for a lot more than only listening to their favorite tunes (though, naturally, they do that too).

But, regrettably, earbuds can present some considerable risks to your ears because so many people use them for so many listening tasks. If you’re using these devices all day every day, you may be putting your hearing in jeopardy!

Why earbuds are unique

In the past, you would need cumbersome, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-quality listening experience. That’s not necessarily the case anymore. Incredible sound quality can be produced in a very small space with modern earbuds. They were popularized by smartphone makers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with pretty much every smart device sold throughout the 2010s (At present, you don’t see that as much).

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

Earbuds are practical in quite a few contexts because of their dependability, mobility, and convenience. As a result, many people use them pretty much all the time. That’s where things get a little challenging.

It’s all vibrations

Here’s the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all in essence 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 mediator for this process. Inside of your ear are very small hairs known as stereocilia that vibrate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are infinitesimal, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what really identifies these vibrations. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they are transformed into electrical signals by a nerve in your ear.

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

What are the dangers of using earbuds?

The risk 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.

Using earbuds can raise your risk of:

  • Developing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Going through social isolation or cognitive decline due to hearing loss.
  • Developing sensorineural hearing loss with repeated exposure.
  • Not being able to communicate with your family and friends without using a hearing aid.

There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds may introduce greater risks than using regular headphones. The reason may 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 on board.

Either way, volume is the principal consideration, and both kinds of headphones can create hazardous levels of that.

Duration is also an issue besides volume

Perhaps you think there’s a simple fix: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming program, I’ll simply lower the volume. Well… that would be helpful. But it might not be the total solution.

This is because how long you listen is as significant as how loud it is. Think about it like this: listening at top volume for five minutes will damage your ears. But listening at moderate volume for five hours could also damage your ears.

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

  • Give yourself lots of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.
  • If you don’t want to think about it, you might even be able to change the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • Activate volume warnings on your device. These warnings can let you know when your listening volume goes a bit too high. Of course, then it’s your job to adjust your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • If you’re listening at 80% volume, listen for a maximum of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn down the volume.
  • Quit listening right away if you experience ringing in your ears or your ears start to ache.

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) develop suddenly; it occurs gradually and over time. The majority of the time individuals don’t even detect that it’s happening until it’s too late.

There is no cure and no way to reverse sensorineural hearing loss

Noise-generated Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is typically 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 builds up gradually over time, and it usually begins as very limited in scope. NHIL can be hard to identify as a result. It may be getting gradually worse, all the while, you believe it’s just fine.

Regrettably, NIHL can’t be cured or reversed. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can reduce 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 significant emphasis on prevention. And there are multiple ways to decrease your risk of hearing loss, and to practice good prevention, even while using your earbuds:

  • When you’re not using 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.
  • When you’re listening to your devices, use volume-limiting apps.
  • Having your hearing checked by us regularly is a good plan. We will help determine the overall health of your hearing by having you screened.
  • Utilize earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling technology. With this feature, you will be capable of hearing your media more clearly without having to crank it up quite as loud.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Ear plugs, for example, work exceptionally well.
  • Switch up the styles of headphones you’re using. That is, don’t wear earbuds all day every day. Try using over-the-ear headphones as well.

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 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 chuck them in the garbage? Well, no. Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can be costly.

But your approach may need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds constantly. You may not even recognize that your hearing is being damaged by your earbuds. Your best defense, then, is knowing about the danger.

When you listen, limit the volume, that’s the first step. The second step is to talk to us about the state of your hearing today.

If you think you might have damage because 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.