Could Earbuds be Damaging Your Ears?

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 laundry or maybe lost them altogether? Now it’s so boring going for a run in the morning. You have a dull and dreary commute to work. And the audio 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 when you finally find or buy a working pair of earbuds, you’re grateful. The world is suddenly vibrant again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear sound. Earbuds have a lot of uses other than listening to tunes and a large percentage of individuals utilize them.

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

Why earbuds are unique

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a set of headphones, you’d have to use a heavy, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). All that has now changed. Awesome sound quality can be produced in a really 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 all through the 2010s (funny enough, they’re somewhat rare these days when you purchase a new phone).

These little earbuds (sometimes they even include microphones) began showing up everywhere because they were so high-quality and accessible. Whether you’re out and about, or hanging out at home, earbuds are one of the main ways you’re taking calls, viewing your favorite program, or listening to music.

It’s that combination of convenience, portability, and dependability that makes earbuds useful in a large number of contexts. Lots of people use them basically all of the time consequently. And that’s become somewhat of an issue.

It’s all vibrations

Here’s the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all basically the same thing. They’re simply waves of moving air molecules. 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 intermediary for this process. There are very small hairs along your ear that vibrate when exposed to sound. These are not large vibrations, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what actually recognizes these vibrations. At this stage, there’s a nerve in your ear that converts those vibrations into electrical impulses, and that’s what lets your brain make heads or tails of it all.

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

What are the risks of using earbuds?

The danger of hearing damage is prevalent 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 raise your danger of:

  • Repeated exposure increasing the development of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Not being able to communicate with your friends and family without using a hearing aid.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss resulting in deafness.
  • Hearing loss contributing to mental decline and social isolation.

There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds may introduce greater risks than using conventional headphones. The reason might be that earbuds direct sound right to the most sensitive parts of the ear. Some audiologists think this is the case while others still aren’t sure.

Besides, what’s more relevant is the volume, and any pair of headphones is able to deliver dangerous levels of sound.

Duration is also an issue besides volume

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

This is because how long you listen is as important as how loud it is. Modest volume for five hours can be equally as damaging as max volume for five minutes.

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.
  • Make use of the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more minutes? Lower the volume.)
  • Give yourself plenty of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.
  • If you don’t want to think about it, you may even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • Quit listening immediately if you notice ringing in your ears or your ears begin to ache.
  • Make sure that your device has volume level warnings turned on. If your listening volume goes too high, a notification will alert you. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to reduce the volume.

Earbuds specifically, and headphones in general, can be kind of stressful for your ears. So give your ears a break. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) happen suddenly; it progresses gradually and over time. Which means, you might not even recognize it occurring, at least, not until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is irreversible

Noise-generated Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is typically irreversible. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear are irreversibly destroyed due to noise).

The damage is hardly noticeable, particularly in the early stages, and develops slowly over time. NHIL can be hard to detect as a result. It might be getting gradually worse, all the while, you think it’s just fine.

Sadly, NIHL can’t be cured or reversed. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can mitigate the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. But the overall damage that’s being done, unfortunately, is irreversible.

So the ideal strategy is prevention

This is why prevention is emphasized by so many hearing specialists. Here are a few ways to continue to listen to your earbuds while lowering your risk of hearing loss with good prevention practices:

  • Use volume-limiting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Use other types of headphones. That is, don’t wear earbuds all day every day. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.
  • Getting your hearing tested by us regularly is a good plan. We will help determine the overall health of your hearing by having you screened.
  • Use earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling tech. With this function, you will be capable of hearing your media more clearly without needing to crank it up quite so loud.
  • If you do need to go into an overly noisy setting, utilize hearing protection. Wear earplugs, for instance.
  • Reduce the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you’re not using earbuds. This could mean paying extra attention to the sound of your environment or avoiding overly loud situations.

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

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 your approach could need to be changed if you’re listening to your earbuds constantly. These earbuds may be harming your hearing and you may not even recognize it. Knowing the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

Step one is to moderate the volume and duration of your listening. But talking to us about the state of your hearing is the next step.

If you believe you may have damage as a result of 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.