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 pullover that went through the laundry?) Suddenly, your morning jog is a million times more boring. You have a dull and dreary commute to work. And your virtual meetings are suffering from bad audio quality.

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

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

But, unfortunately, earbuds can present some substantial risks to your hearing because so many people use them for so many listening activities. Your hearing might be in jeopardy if you’re wearing earbuds a lot every day.

Why earbuds are different

In the past, you would need cumbersome, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-quality listening experience. That’s all now changed. Fabulous sound quality can be produced in a very small space with contemporary earbuds. They were popularized by smartphone makers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with pretty much every smartphone sold all through the 2010s (Currently, you don’t find that as much).

Partly because these sophisticated earbuds (with microphones, even) were so readily available, they began showing up everywhere. Whether you’re out and about, or spending time at home, earbuds are one of the principal ways you’re taking calls, streaming your favorite show, or listening to tunes.

Earbuds are useful in quite a few contexts because of their reliability, portability, and convenience. Because of this, many consumers use them almost all the time. And that’s become a bit of a problem.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

Basically, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re simply air molecules being moved by waves of pressure. Your brain will then classify the vibrations into categories like “voice” or “music”.

In this pursuit, your brain gets a big assist from your inner ear. Inside of your ear are tiny little hairs called stereocilia that oscillate when exposed to sound. These are not big vibrations, they’re very small. These vibrations are distinguished by your inner ear. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they are converted into electrical signals by a nerve in your ear.

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

The dangers of earbud use

Because of the appeal of earbuds, the danger of hearing damage due to loud noise is fairly widespread. According to one study, over 1 billion young individuals are at risk of developing hearing loss across the globe.

Using earbuds can increase your danger of:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss leading to deafness.
  • Going through social isolation or cognitive decline as a result of hearing loss.
  • Needing to utilize a hearing aid so that you can communicate with family and friends.
  • Developing sensorineural hearing loss with continued exposure.

There could be a greater risk with earbuds than conventional headphones, according to some evidence. The reason may be that earbuds direct sound right to the most sensitive parts of the ear. Some audiologists believe this while others still aren’t sure.

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

It isn’t just volume, it’s duration, as well

You might be thinking, well, the solution is easy: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming program, I’ll just reduce the volume. Well… that would help. But it might not be the total answer.

This is because how long you listen is as significant as how loud it is. 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.

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

  • As a general rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • Enable volume warnings on your device. These warnings can alert you when your listening volume gets a bit too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to lower the volume.
  • Take regular breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.
  • If you are listening at 80% volume, listen for a maximum of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn the volume down.
  • Many smart devices allow you to reduce the max volume so you won’t even need to think about it.
  • If your ears start to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.

Earbuds particularly, 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 all of a sudden; it occurs gradually and over time. Which means, you might not even notice it happening, at least, not until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent

Usually, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is 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 is hardly noticeable, particularly in the early stages, and develops slowly over time. That can make NIHL difficult to recognize. You might think your hearing is perfectly fine, all the while it’s slowly getting worse and worse.

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

So the ideal strategy is prevention

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

  • If you do need to go into an overly loud environment, utilize ear protection. Use earplugs, for example.
  • Use volume-restricting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Use earbuds and headphones that have noise-canceling tech. With this feature, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without needing to crank it up quite so loud.
  • Schedule routine visits with us to have your hearing tested. We will be able to help you get assessed and monitor the overall health of your hearing.
  • Change up the styles of headphones you’re using. Put simply, switch from earbuds to other kinds of headphones once in a while. Try using over-the-ear headphones as well.
  • Control the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you’re not using earbuds. Avoid excessively loud environments whenever possible.

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

So… are earbuds the enemy?

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

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds regularly, you might want to think about changing your approach. You may not even recognize that your hearing is being harmed by your earbuds. Being aware of the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

When you listen, regulate the volume, that’s the first step. Step two is to consult with us about the state of your hearing right away.

If you believe you may have damage due to overuse of earbuds, call us right away! We Can Help!

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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.