Can Your Ears be Harmed 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? Suddenly, your morning jog is a million times more boring. Your commute or bus ride is dreary and dull. And the sound quality of your virtual meetings suffers considerably.

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 world is full of completely clear and vibrant sound, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds are all over the place right now, and individuals use them for a lot more than only listening to their favorite tunes (though, naturally, they do that too).

But, unfortunately, earbuds can present some substantial risks to your ears because so many people are using them for so many listening activities. Your hearing could be at risk if you’re using earbuds a lot every day.

Earbuds are different for a number of reasons

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a pair of headphones, you’d have to use a heavy, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is slang for headphones). All that has now changed. Incredible sound quality can be created in a very small space with contemporary earbuds. They were made popular by smartphone manufacturers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with basically every smart device sold throughout the 2010s (funny enough, they’re somewhat rare these days when you purchase a new phone).

In part because these sophisticated earbuds (with microphones, even) were so readily available, they began showing up all over the place. Whether you’re out and about, or hanging out at home, earbuds are one of the main ways you’re talking on the phone, streaming your favorite show, or listening to music.

It’s that combination of convenience, portability, and dependability that makes earbuds useful in a wide variety of contexts. As a result, many consumers use them almost all the time. And that’s become somewhat of an issue.

It’s all vibrations

Essentially, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re just waves of vibrating air molecules. Your brain will then organize the vibrations into categories like “voice” or “music”.

In this endeavor, your brain gets a big assist from your inner ear. There are very small hairs inside of your ear that oscillate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are infinitesimal, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what really identifies these vibrations. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they’re transformed into electrical impulses by a nerve in your ear.

It’s not what type of sound but volume that results in 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

Because of the popularity of earbuds, the danger of hearing damage due to loud noise is pretty prevalent. 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 utilize earbuds at high volume, you raise your risk of:

  • Hearing loss contributing to mental decline and social isolation.
  • Needing to utilize a hearing aid so that you can communicate with friends and loved ones.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss leading to deafness.
  • Developing sensorineural hearing loss with continued exposure.

There could be a greater risk with earbuds than conventional headphones, according to some evidence. The idea here is that the sound is funneled directly toward the more sensitive components of your ear. But the jury’s still out on this, and not all audiologists are on board.

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

Duration is also a concern besides volume

Maybe you think there’s an easy solution: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming show, I’ll just reduce 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. Moderate 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:

  • Enable volume warnings on your device. These warnings can inform you about when your listening volume goes a little too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to lower the volume.
  • 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.
  • As a general rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • Many smart devices let you lower the max volume so you won’t even have to think about it.
  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.
  • Give yourself lots of breaks. It’s best to take regular and extended breaks.

Your ears can be stressed by utilizing headphones, particularly earbuds. So try to cut your ears some slack. Because sensorineural hearing loss normally happens gradually over time not immediately. Which means, you might not even acknowledge it happening, at least, not until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent

Typically, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is irreversible. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear become irreversibly destroyed because of noise).

The damage is scarcely noticeable, especially in the early stages, and progresses gradually over time. That can make NIHL difficult to recognize. You might think your hearing is perfectly fine, all the while it’s gradually getting worse and worse.

There is presently no cure or capability of reversing NIHL. Still, there are treatments created to mitigate and decrease some of the most considerable 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 ideal strategy is prevention

This is why prevention is stressed 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 routines:

  • Getting your hearing tested by us routinely is a smart plan. We will help identify the overall health of your hearing by having you screened.
  • Change up the types of headphones you’re using. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones once in a while. Try utilizing over-the-ear headphones too.
  • When you’re listening to your devices, use volume-limiting apps.
  • When you’re not using your earbuds, reduce the amount of noise damage your ears are subjected to. Avoid overly loud environments whenever you can.
  • Utilize earbuds and headphones that have noise-canceling tech. This will mean you won’t have to turn the volume quite so high in order to hear your media clearly.
  • If you do need to go into an overly loud setting, use hearing protection. Ear plugs, for instance, work quite well.

Preventing hearing loss, especially NIHL, can help you safeguard your sense of hearing for years longer. It can also help make treatments such as hearing aids more effective when you do ultimately require them.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

So does all this mean you should grab your nearest pair of earbuds and chuck them in the garbage? Well, no. Especially not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little devices are not cheap!

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds on a regular basis, you may want to consider changing your strategy. You may not even realize 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. Step two is to speak with us about the state of your hearing today.

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