Can Your Ears be Damaged by Earbuds?

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 wash 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 your virtual meetings are suffering from poor audio 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. The world is suddenly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear audio. Earbuds have so many uses other than listening to music and a large percentage of people utilize them.

But, unfortunately, earbuds can present some significant risks to your hearing because so many people use them for so many listening tasks. If you’re wearing these devices all day every day, you may be putting your hearing at risk!

Earbuds are unique for several reasons

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a pair of headphones, you’d have to adopt a bulky, cumbersome pair of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is slang for headphones). That isn’t necessarily the case anymore. Modern earbuds can provide fantastic sound in a tiny space. They were made popular by smartphone makers, who included a shiny new pair of earbuds with basically every smartphone sold throughout the 2010s (Currently, you don’t find that as much).

These little earbuds (sometimes they even include microphones) began showing up all over the place because they were so high-quality and accessible. Whether you’re talking on the phone, listening to tunes, or watching movies, earbuds are one of the main ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).

Earbuds are useful in quite a few contexts because of their reliability, mobility, and convenience. Lots of individuals use them basically all of the time as a result. And that’s become somewhat of an issue.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

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

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

This is important because it’s not music or drums that cause hearing loss, 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

The danger of hearing damage is widespread because of the popularity 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 raise your risk of:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss leading to deafness.
  • Going through social isolation or cognitive decline as a consequence of hearing loss.
  • Repeated exposure increasing the advancement of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Needing to utilize a hearing aid so that you can communicate with friends and loved ones.

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 components of the ear. But the jury’s still out on this, and not all audiologists are convinced.

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

Duration is also a concern besides volume

Maybe you think there’s a simple solution: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming program, I’ll just lower the volume. Well… that would help. But there’s more to it than that.

This is because how long you listen is as crucial as how loud it is. Modest volume for five hours can be equally as harmful as top volume for five minutes.

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

  • Many smart devices allow you to reduce the max volume so you won’t even have to worry about it.
  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately quit listening.
  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • Make sure that your device has volume level alerts enabled. If your listening volume goes too high, a warning will alert you. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to lower the volume.
  • Give yourself plenty of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.
  • Make use of the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more time? Reduce the volume.)

Earbuds specifically, and headphones generally, can be kind of stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) develop all of a sudden; it occurs gradually and over time. Most of the time individuals don’t even realize that it’s occurring until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is usually permanent. 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, particularly in the early stages, and progresses slowly over time. That can make NIHL hard to detect. It might be getting slowly worse, all the while, you believe it’s just fine.

There is presently no cure or capability of reversing NIHL. Still, there are treatments created to mitigate and minimize some of the most considerable impacts of sensorineural hearing loss (the most popular of such treatments is a hearing aid). These treatments, however, are not able to counter the damage that’s been done.

So the ideal strategy is prevention

That’s why so many hearing specialists put a considerable emphasis on prevention. Here are some ways to continue to listen to your earbuds while decreasing your risk of hearing loss with good prevention practices:

  • Change up the types of headphones you’re wearing. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones once in a while. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.
  • When you’re using your devices, use volume-limiting apps.
  • Limit the amount of damage your ears are encountering while you are not using earbuds. This could mean paying additional attention to the sound of your surroundings or avoiding overly loud situations.
  • Having your hearing tested by us routinely is a smart plan. We will help establish the overall health of your hearing by having you screened.
  • If you do have to go into an extremely loud setting, use ear protection. Ear plugs, for example, work remarkably well.
  • Utilize earbuds and headphones that have noise-canceling tech. This will mean you won’t need to turn the volume quite so high so that you can hear your media clearly.

You will be able to protect your sense of hearing for many years by taking steps to prevent hearing loss, especially NHIL. It can also help make treatments such as hearing aids more effective when you do eventually need them.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

So does all this mean you should find your nearest set of earbuds and throw them in the trash? Not Exactly! Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can get expensive.

But your strategy may need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds constantly. These earbuds could be damaging your hearing and you might not even realize it. Your best defense, then, is being aware of the danger.

Step one is to moderate the volume and duration of your listening. The second step is to talk to us about the state of your hearing right away.

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

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.