Can Your Ears be Harmed by Earbuds?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever misplaced your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, inadvertently left them in the pocket of a sweatshirt that went through the laundry?) Now it’s so boring going for a jog in the morning. Your commute or bus ride is dreary and dull. And your virtual meetings are suffering from bad audio quality.

Often, you don’t recognize how valuable something is until you’ve lost it (yes, we are not being discreet around here today).

So you’re so relieved when you finally get a working set of earbuds. The world is instantly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear audio. Earbuds have a lot of uses other than listening to tunes and a large percentage of individuals utilize them.

But, regrettably, earbuds can present some significant risks to your hearing because so many people are using them for so many listening tasks. If you’re using these devices all day every day, you may be putting your hearing at risk!

Why earbuds are unique

In previous years, you would need cumbersome, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-quality listening experience. That isn’t always the situation anymore. Fabulous sound quality can be produced in a really small space with contemporary earbuds. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone manufacturers popularized these little devices by offering a pair with every new smartphone purchase (amusing enough, they’re rather rare nowadays when you buy a new phone).

These little earbuds (frequently they even include microphones) started to show up all over the place because they were so high-quality and available. Whether you’re taking calls, listening to tunes, or watching Netflix, earbuds are one of the main ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).

Earbuds are useful in a number of contexts because of their dependability, portability, and convenience. As a result, many people use them virtually all the time. That’s where things get a bit challenging.

It’s all vibrations

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

In this endeavor, your brain is given a big assist from your inner ear. Inside of your ear are very small hairs called stereocilia that vibrate when subjected to sound. These vibrations are minute, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what actually recognizes these vibrations. At that point, there’s a nerve in your ear that converts those vibrations into electrical impulses, and that’s what lets your brain figure it all out.

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

What are the risks of using earbuds?

Because of the popularity of earbuds, the risk of hearing damage as a result of loud noise is very 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 raise your risk of:

  • Experiencing social isolation or cognitive decline as a consequence of hearing loss.
  • Developing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Repeated exposure increasing the development of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Not being capable of communicating with your family and friends without using a hearing aid.

There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds may present greater risks than using regular headphones. 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.

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

Duration is also an issue besides volume

Maybe you think there’s an easy solution: I’ll simply turn down the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes straight. Naturally, this would be a smart idea. But it may not be the complete solution.

This is because how long you listen is as important as how loud it is. Modest volume for five hours can be equally as damaging as top volume for five minutes.

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

  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • Make use of the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more minutes? Reduce the volume.)
  • Enable volume warnings on your device. These warnings can inform you about when your listening volume goes a bit too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to reduce the volume.
  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.
  • Many smart devices allow you to decrease the max volume so you won’t even have to think about it.
  • Take regular breaks. It’s best to take regular and extended breaks.

Earbuds specifically, and headphones in general, can be kind of stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) happen all of a sudden; it occurs gradually and over time. 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

Usually, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is permanent. 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 accumulates slowly over time, and it usually begins as very limited in scope. That can make NIHL difficult to detect. You might think your hearing is perfectly fine, all the while it’s gradually getting worse and worse.

Unfortunately, NIHL can’t be cured or reversed. 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, sadly, is irreversible.

So the ideal strategy is prevention

This is why prevention is stressed by so many hearing specialists. Here are some ways to continue to listen to your earbuds while decreasing your risk of hearing loss with good prevention practices:

  • If you do have to go into an overly loud setting, use ear protection. Ear plugs, for instance, work exceptionally well.
  • Use other types of headphones. That is, don’t wear earbuds all day every day. Try using over-the-ear headphones as well.
  • Reduce the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you’re not wearing earbuds. Avoid exceedingly loud settings whenever possible.
  • Utilize earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling tech. This will mean you won’t have to turn the volume quite so high so that you can hear your media clearly.
  • Use volume-limiting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Schedule regular visits with us to have your hearing checked. We will help identify the general health of your hearing by having you screened.

You will be able to protect your sense of hearing for many years by taking actions 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! Especially not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little gizmos are expensive!

But your strategy could need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds constantly. These earbuds may be harming your hearing and you may not even realize it. Knowing the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

When you listen, reduce 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.