Can Your Ears be Harmed by Earbuds?

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 wash or maybe lost them altogether? All of a sudden, your morning jog is so much more boring. 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 when you finally find or purchase a working pair of earbuds, you’re grateful. The world is suddenly vibrant again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear sound. Earbuds have so many uses other than listening to tunes and a large percentage of people use them.

Unfortunately, partly because they are so easy and so widely used, earbuds present some significant risks for your hearing. If you’re using these devices all day every day, you may be putting your hearing at risk!

Why earbuds are unique

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a pair of headphones, you’d have to use a bulky, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is slang for headphones). That isn’t always the case now. Fabulous sound quality can be created in a really small space with modern earbuds. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone manufacturers popularized these little devices by supplying a pair with every new smartphone purchase (funny enough, they’re somewhat rare these days when you buy a new phone).

These little earbuds (sometimes they even include microphones) started to show 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 principal ways you’re taking calls, viewing your favorite program, or listening to music.

Earbuds are useful in a number of contexts because of their reliability, mobility, and convenience. As a result, many consumers use them pretty much all the time. That’s where things get a little tricky.

It’s all vibrations

Here’s the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all essentially the same thing. They’re just air molecules being vibrated by waves of pressure. It’s your brain that does all the heavy lifting of translating those vibrations, sorting one kind of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

In this endeavor, your brain receives a big assist from your inner ear. There are tiny 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. At that point, there’s 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.

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.

What are the risks of using earbuds?

The danger of hearing damage is prevalent because of the appeal of earbuds. 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 use earbuds at high volume, you increase your risk of:

  • Needing to use a hearing aid in order to communicate with friends and loved ones.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss resulting in deafness.
  • Hearing loss contributing to mental decline and social isolation.
  • Repeated subjection increasing the development of sensorineural hearing loss.

There might be a greater risk with earbuds than conventional headphones, according to some evidence. The idea here is that the sound is directed toward the more sensitive parts of your ear. Some audiologists believe this while others still aren’t sure.

Besides, what’s more significant is the volume, and any set of headphones is capable of delivering dangerous levels of sound.

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

You might be thinking, well, the fix is easy: I’ll simply lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes in a row. Well… that would help. But there’s more to it than that.

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 medium volume for five hours could also harm your ears.

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

  • Enable volume warnings on your device. If your listening volume goes too high, a notification will alert you. Of course, then it’s up to you to adjust your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
  • If you don’t want to think about it, you may even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • If you are listening at 80% volume, listen for a max of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen longer turn the volume down.
  • 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 plenty of breaks. It’s best to take frequent and extended breaks.

Earbuds specifically, and headphones generally, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) develop suddenly; it occurs gradually and over time. The majority of the time individuals don’t even realize that it’s occurring until it’s too late.

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

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is usually 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 accumulates gradually over time, and it normally begins as very limited in scope. That can make NIHL difficult to detect. It might be getting gradually worse, in the meantime, you believe it’s just fine.

There is currently no cure or ability to reverse NIHL. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can mitigate the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. But the total damage that’s being done, regrettably, is permanent.

So the ideal plan is prevention

This is why prevention is stressed by so many hearing specialists. And there are several ways to lower your risk of hearing loss, and to practice good prevention, even while using your earbuds:

  • Change up the styles of headphones you’re wearing. That is, don’t wear earbuds all day every day. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.
  • Having your hearing tested by us routinely is a smart plan. We will help determine the overall health of your hearing by having you screened.
  • Utilize earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling tech. This will mean you won’t need to turn the volume quite so high in order to hear your media clearly.
  • If you do need to go into an extremely loud environment, utilize ear protection. Wear earplugs, for instance.
  • Control the amount of damage your ears are encountering while you are not wearing earbuds. Avoid excessively loud environments whenever possible.
  • Use volume-limiting apps on your phone and other devices.

You will be able to preserve your sense of hearing for many years by taking steps to prevent hearing loss, especially NHIL. And, if you do wind up needing treatment, like hearing aids, they will be more effective.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

Well…should I just throw my earbuds in the trash? Well, no. Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little gizmos are not cheap!

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds on a regular basis, you might want to think about altering your approach. These earbuds may be damaging your hearing and you might not even recognize it. Your best defense, then, is knowing about the danger.

When you listen, regulate the volume, that’s the first step. But talking to us about the state of your hearing is the next step.

If you think you might 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.

Questions? Talk To Us.