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 laundry or maybe lost them altogether? Suddenly, your morning jog is a million times more boring. You have a dull and dreary commute to work. And the audio quality of your virtual meetings suffers substantially.

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 set of earbuds, you’re grateful. Now your world is full of completely clear and vibrant audio, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds have so many uses other than listening to music and a large percentage of individuals use them.

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

Why earbuds are different

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality audio from a set of headphones, you’d have to use a heavy, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). That’s all now changed. Fabulous sound quality can be created in a really small space with modern earbuds. They were made popular by smartphone makers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with basically every smart device sold all through the 2010s (funny enough, they’re rather rare these days when you purchase a new phone).

Partly because these high-quality earbuds (with microphones, even) were so easily accessible, they started showing up all over the place. Whether you’re out and about, or spending time at home, earbuds are one of the leading ways you’re taking calls, viewing your favorite show, or listening to tunes.

Earbuds are useful in a number of contexts because of their reliability, portability, and convenience. Lots of people use them pretty much all of the time consequently. And that’s become somewhat of a problem.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

Here’s the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all basically the same thing. They’re simply 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 intermediary for this process. There are tiny hairs along your ear that oscillate when exposed to sound. These are not large vibrations, they’re tiny. These vibrations are distinguished by your inner ear. At this stage, there’s a nerve in your ear that translates those vibrations into electrical signals, and that’s what allows your brain to make heads or tails of it all.

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

What are the risks of using earbuds?

The danger of hearing damage is widespread 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.

Using earbuds can raise your danger of:

  • Hearing loss contributing to mental decline and social isolation.
  • Developing sensorineural hearing loss with continued exposure.
  • Advancing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Needing to utilize a hearing aid in order to communicate with friends and loved ones.

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

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

It isn’t only volume, it’s duration, also

You may be thinking, well, the fix is simple: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming show, I’ll simply lower the volume. Well… that would help. But it may not be the total answer.

The reason is that it’s not just the volume that’s the problem, it’s the duration. Modest volume for five hours can be just as damaging as top volume for five minutes.

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

  • If your ears start to experience pain or ringing, immediately quit listening.
  • Give yourself lots of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.
  • 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.
  • If you don’t want to worry about it, you might even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • Enable volume warnings on your device. These warnings can inform you about when your listening volume gets a little too high. Of course, then it’s your job to adjust your volume, but it’s better than nothing!

Earbuds specifically, and headphones generally, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So give your ears a break. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) develop suddenly; it progresses gradually and over time. Which means, you may not even notice it occurring, at least, not until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is irreversible

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 gradually over time, and it normally starts as very limited in scope. That can make NIHL hard to detect. You might think your hearing is perfectly fine, all the while it is gradually getting worse and worse.

There is presently no cure or capability of reversing NIHL. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can mitigate the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. These treatments, however, can’t reverse the damage that’s been done.

So the ideal plan is prevention

This is why prevention is emphasized by so many hearing specialists. Here are some ways to keep listening to your earbuds while reducing your risk of hearing loss with good prevention practices:

  • Many headphones and earbuds incorporate noise-canceling technology, try to use those. With this feature, you will be capable of hearing your media more clearly without needing to turn it up quite so loud.
  • When you’re not using your earbuds, minimize the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. Avoid exceedingly loud environments whenever possible.
  • Use other kinds of headphones. That is, don’t use earbuds all day every day. Try utilizing over-the-ear headphones too.
  • Getting your hearing tested by us regularly is a good plan. We will be able to help you get assessed and monitor the overall health of your hearing.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Ear plugs, for example, work quite well.
  • When you’re listening to your devices, use volume-limiting apps.

You will be able to protect 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 need them.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

So does all this mean you should grab your nearest pair of earbuds and throw them in the garbage? Well, no. Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can be expensive.

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds regularly, you might want to consider altering your approach. You may not even recognize that your hearing is being harmed by your earbuds. Knowing the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

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

Think you might have damaged your hearing with earbuds? We can help! Get tested 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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