Can Your Hearing 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? All of a sudden, your morning jog is so much more boring. You have a dull and dreary commute to work. And your virtual meetings are suffering from poor sound quality.

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

So you’re so relieved when you finally get a working pair of earbuds. The world is instantly vibrant again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear audio. Earbuds are everywhere right now, and people utilize them for so much more than only listening to their favorite tunes (though, obviously, they do that too).

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

Why earbuds are unique

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a pair of headphones, you’d have to adopt a heavy, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is slang for headphones). That’s all now changed. Modern earbuds can supply stunning sound in a tiny space. They were made popular by smartphone manufacturers, 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).

In part because these high-quality earbuds (with microphones, even) were so readily available, they started showing up all over the place. Whether you’re talking on the phone, listening to music, or watching Netflix, earbuds are one of the chief ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).

Earbuds are practical in quite a few contexts because of their reliability, portability, and convenience. Lots of people use them pretty much all of the time as a result. That’s where things get a bit challenging.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

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

Your inner ear is the mediator for this process. There are tiny hairs inside of your ear that oscillate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are infinitesimal, they’re tiny. These vibrations are distinguished by your inner ear. At that point, there’s a nerve in your ear that converts those vibrations into electrical impulses, and that’s what allows your brain to figure it all out.

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

The dangers of earbud use

The danger of hearing damage is prevalent because of the popularity of earbuds. According to one study, over 1 billion young individuals are at risk of developing hearing loss across the globe.

On an individual level, when you use earbuds at high volume, you increase your risk of:

  • Experiencing social isolation or cognitive decline as a result of hearing loss.
  • Continued subjection increasing the development of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Not being able to communicate with your family and friends without wearing a hearing aid.
  • Developing deafness due to sensorineural hearing loss.

There may 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 components of your ear. Some audiologists believe this while others still aren’t convinced.

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

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

You may be thinking, well, the fix is easy: I’ll just turn down the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes in a row. Naturally, this would be a good idea. But it may not be the complete solution.

This is because how long you listen is as important as how loud it is. Moderate volume for five hours can be just as harmful as max volume for five minutes.

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

  • If you are listening at 80% volume, listen for a max of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen longer turn down the volume.
  • As a basic rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • Give yourself plenty of breaks. It’s best to take frequent and lengthy breaks.
  • Be certain that your device has volume level alerts enabled. These warnings can alert you when your listening volume goes a little too high. Of course, then it’s your job to adjust your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
  • If you don’t want to think about it, you might even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • Stop listening right away if you hear ringing in your ears or your ears begin to ache.

Your ears can be stressed by utilizing headphones, especially earbuds. So give your ears a break. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (typically) happen all of a sudden; it occurs slowly and over time. Most of the time people don’t even recognize that it’s occurring until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is irreversible

Usually, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is irreversible. 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 be restored.

The damage builds up gradually over time, and it usually starts as very limited in scope. That can make NIHL hard to recognize. It may be getting gradually worse, in the meantime, you believe it’s perfectly fine.

Unfortunately, NIHL cannot be cured or reversed. However, there are treatments created to offset and minimize some of the most significant effects of sensorineural hearing loss (the most popular of such treatments is a hearing aid). But the total damage that’s being done, sadly, is permanent.

So the best strategy is prevention

That’s why so many hearing specialists place a significant emphasis on prevention. And there are multiple ways to decrease your risk of hearing loss, and to exercise good prevention, even while using your earbuds:

  • Use multiple types of headphones. Put simply, switch from earbuds to other kinds of headphones sometimes. Over-the-ear headphones can also be used sometimes.
  • Some headphones and earbuds come with noise-canceling technology, try to utilize those. With this feature, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without having to turn it up quite as loud.
  • If you do need to go into an overly noisy setting, use ear protection. Wear earplugs, for example.
  • Use volume-controlling apps on your phone and other devices.
  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, minimize the amount of noise damage your ears are subjected to. Avoid exceedingly loud environments whenever possible.
  • Make regular visits with us to get your hearing tested. We will help determine the overall health of your hearing by having you screened.

Preventing hearing loss, particularly NIHL, can help you preserve your sense of hearing for years longer. And, if you do wind up requiring treatment, such as hearing aids, they will be more effective.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

Well…should I just toss my earbuds in the garbage? Well, no. Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little devices are expensive!

But your approach may need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. You may not even recognize that your hearing is being damaged 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 may have damaged your hearing with earbuds? We can help! Get assessed now!

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.