Can Your Ears be Damaged 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? Now it’s so boring going for a jog in the morning. Your commute or bus ride is dreary and dull. And the audio quality of your virtual meetings suffers significantly.

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 thankful. The world is instantly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear audio. Earbuds are all over the place these days, and people use them for so much more than just listening to their favorite songs (though, of course, they do that too).

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

Why earbuds are unique

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality audio from a pair of headphones, you’d have to adopt a bulky, cumbersome pair of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). That isn’t always the situation anymore. Fabulous sound quality can be created in a really small space with contemporary earbuds. They were made popular by smartphone makers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with pretty much every smartphone sold throughout the 2010s (amusing enough, they’re pretty rare these days when you buy a new phone).

These little earbuds (sometimes they even include microphones) started to show up all over the place because they were so high-quality and accessible. Whether you’re out and about, or hanging out at home, earbuds are one of the principal ways you’re talking on the phone, viewing your favorite program, or listening to music.

It’s that combination of convenience, mobility, and reliability that makes earbuds useful in a wide variety of contexts. Because of this, many people use them pretty much all the time. And that’s become a bit of a problem.

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 heavy lifting of translating those vibrations, grouping one kind of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

In this pursuit, your brain receives a big assist from your inner ear. There are tiny hairs inside of your ear that oscillate when exposed to sound. These are not huge vibrations, they’re very small. These vibrations are distinguished by your inner ear. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they’re converted into electrical impulses by a nerve in your ear.

It’s not what kind 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.

The risks of earbud use

Because of the appeal of earbuds, the risk of hearing damage due to loud noise is quite prevalent. 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 danger of:

  • Hearing loss contributing to mental decline and social isolation.
  • Repeated exposure increasing the advancement of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Needing to utilize a hearing aid in order to communicate with friends and loved ones.
  • Developing deafness due to sensorineural hearing loss.

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

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

Duration is also a concern besides volume

Perhaps you think there’s an easy fix: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming program, I’ll simply lower the volume. Well… that would help. But there’s more to it than that.

The reason is that it’s not simply the volume that’s the issue, it’s the duration. Think about it like this: listening at top volume for five minutes will damage your ears. But listening at medium volume for five hours might also damage your ears.

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

  • If you don’t want to worry about it, you might even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • Activate volume alerts on your device. These warnings can inform you about when your listening volume goes a little too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your job to reduce the volume.
  • Stop listening immediately if you notice ringing in your ears or your ears begin to ache.
  • Make use of the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more time? Lower the volume.)
  • Take regular breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.
  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.

Earbuds particularly, and headphones generally, can be kind of stressful for your ears. So give your ears a break. Because sensorineural hearing loss normally happens slowly over time not immediately. Most of the time people don’t even detect that it’s occurring until it’s too late.

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

Typically, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is irreversible. When the stereocilia (small hair-like cells in your ears that detect sound) get destroyed by too much exposure to loud sound, they can never be restored.

The damage accumulates gradually over time, and it usually starts as very limited in scope. NHIL can be difficult to detect as a result. You may think your hearing is just fine, all the while it is gradually getting worse and worse.

There is presently no cure or ability to reverse NIHL. Still, there are treatments created to offset and decrease some of the most significant effects of sensorineural hearing loss (the most prevalent of such treatments is a hearing aid). But the total damage that’s being done, regrettably, is irreversible.

So the ideal strategy is prevention

This is why prevention is stressed by so many hearing specialists. And there are multiple ways to decrease your risk of hearing loss, and to exercise good prevention, even while listening to your earbuds:

  • Schedule routine visits with us to get your hearing checked. We will help identify the general health of your hearing by getting you screened.
  • When you’re listening to your devices, use volume-limiting apps.
  • Use other kinds of headphones. Put simply, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones sometimes. Try using over-the-ear headphones also.
  • Utilize earbuds and headphones that have noise-canceling technology. With this function, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without having to turn it up quite as loud.
  • If you do have to go into an extremely loud setting, use ear protection. Ear plugs, for instance, work exceptionally well.
  • Limit the amount of damage your ears are encountering while you’re not using earbuds. This could mean paying extra attention to the sound of your environment or avoiding overly loud situations.

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

So… are earbuds the enemy?

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

But your strategy could need to be changed if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. These earbuds may be damaging your hearing and you may not even notice it. Being aware of the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

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

Think you may have damaged your hearing with earbuds? We can help! Get assessed now!

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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.


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