Can Your Hearing be Damaged by Earbuds?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever lost your earbuds? (Or, maybe, inadvertently left them in the pocket of a sweatshirt that went through the washer and dryer?) Now it’s so boring going for a walk in the morning. Your commute or train ride is dreary and dull. And your virtual meetings are suffering from poor sound quality.

The old saying “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” applies here.

So you’re so happy when you finally get a working pair of earbuds. Now your life is full of completely clear and vibrant audio, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds are all over the place these days, and individuals use them for a lot more than just listening to their favorite songs (though, of course, they do that too).

Unfortunately, partly because they are so easy and so common, earbuds present some substantial risks for your hearing. If you’re wearing these devices all day every day, you might be putting your hearing in jeopardy!

Earbuds are unique for several reasons

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a set of headphones, you’d have to use a heavy, cumbersome pair of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). That’s all now changed. Awesome sound quality can be produced in a very small space with modern earbuds. They were popularized by smartphone manufacturers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with pretty much every smartphone sold throughout the 2010s (amusing enough, they’re somewhat rare nowadays when you buy a new phone).

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

It’s that combination of convenience, portability, and dependability that makes earbuds practical in a wide variety of contexts. Lots of people use them basically all of the time as a result. And that’s become somewhat of a problem.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

In essence, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re simply waves of vibrating air molecules. It’s your brain that does all the heavy lifting of translating those vibrations, grouping one type of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

Your inner ear is the mediator for this process. Inside of your ear are very small hairs known as stereocilia that vibrate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are minute, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what actually identifies these vibrations. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they are transformed into electrical impulses by a nerve in your ear.

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

The risks of earbud use

The risk 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.

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

  • Not being capable of communicating with your friends and family without wearing a hearing aid.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss resulting in deafness.
  • Hearing loss contributing to mental decline and social isolation.
  • Repeated subjection increasing the advancement of sensorineural hearing loss.

There might be a greater risk with earbuds than conventional headphones, according to some evidence. The reason may 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 pair of headphones is capable of delivering dangerous levels of sound.

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

Perhaps you think there’s an easy solution: I’ll just lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes straight. Well… that would help. But it might not be the complete answer.

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

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

  • Stop listening right away if you experience ringing in your ears or your ears begin to hurt.
  • Be certain that your device has volume level alerts enabled. If your listening volume gets too high, a notification will alert you. Of course, then it’s your job to adjust your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
  • Many smart devices allow you to decrease the max volume so you won’t even need to worry about it.
  • Take frequent breaks. It’s best to take regular and lengthy breaks.
  • As a general rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • If you’re listening at 80% volume, listen for a max of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn down the volume.

Your ears can be stressed by using headphones, especially earbuds. So give your ears a break. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) develop all of a sudden; it occurs slowly and over time. Most of the time individuals don’t even notice that it’s happening until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is usually 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 recover.

The damage is barely noticeable, especially in the early stages, and progresses gradually over time. That can make NIHL difficult to recognize. It might be getting progressively worse, in the meantime, you believe it’s just fine.

There is presently 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. These treatments, however, are not able to reverse the damage that’s been done.

This means prevention is the most useful strategy

That’s why so many hearing specialists put a significant focus on prevention. Here are a few ways to keep listening to your earbuds while reducing your risk of hearing loss with good prevention practices:

  • Change up the styles of headphones you’re wearing. Put simply, switch from earbuds to other kinds of headphones now and then. Over-the-ear headphones can also be used sometimes.
  • Schedule routine visits with us to get your hearing checked. We will help determine the general health of your hearing by having you screened.
  • When you’re listening to your devices, make use of volume-limiting apps.
  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, reduce the amount of noise damage your ears are subjected to. This could mean paying extra attention to the sound of your environment or steering clear of overly loud situations.
  • Wear hearing protection if you’re going to be around loud noises. Use earplugs, for example.
  • Many 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 needing to turn it up quite as loud.

You will be able to preserve 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 require them.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

So does all this mean you should find your nearest pair of earbuds and throw them in the garbage? Not Exactly! Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little devices are not cheap!

But your approach could need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds constantly. You may not even recognize that your hearing is being damaged by your earbuds. 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.

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.