Could Earbuds be Harming Your Ears?

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 laundry or maybe lost them altogether? All of a sudden, your morning jog is so much more boring. Your commute or bus ride is dreary and dull. And the sound quality of your virtual meetings suffers considerably.

Sometimes, you don’t recognize how valuable something is until you’ve lost it (yes, we are not being discreet around here today).

So you’re so happy when you finally get a working set 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 people use them for a lot more than only listening to their favorite tunes (though, of course, they do that too).

But, regrettably, earbuds can present some considerable risks to your ears because so many people use them for so many listening tasks. If you’re using these devices all day every day, you might be putting your hearing in danger!

Earbuds are different for numerous reasons

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality audio from a set of headphones, you’d have to adopt a bulky, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is slang for headphones). That’s not necessarily the case anymore. Incredible sound quality can be created in a really small space with contemporary earbuds. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone manufacturers popularized these little devices by offering a pair with every new smartphone purchase (funny enough, they’re rather rare these days when you purchase a new phone).

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

It’s that mixture of convenience, mobility, and reliability that makes earbuds useful in a wide variety of contexts. As a result, many consumers use them almost all the time. That’s where things get a little challenging.

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 interpreting those vibrations, grouping one type of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

In this endeavor, your brain is given a big assist from your inner ear. Inside of your ear are tiny little hairs called stereocilia that vibrate 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 converted into electrical impulses by a nerve in your ear.

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

What are the dangers of using earbuds?

The risk 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:

  • Hearing loss contributing to cognitive decline and social isolation.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss resulting in deafness.
  • Not being capable of communicating with your family and friends without using a hearing aid.
  • Experiencing sensorineural hearing loss with continued exposure.

There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds might present greater risks than using conventional headphones. The idea here is that the sound is funneled directly toward the more sensitive parts of your 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 set of headphones is capable of delivering dangerous levels of sound.

Duration is also a concern besides volume

Maybe you think there’s a simple fix: I’ll simply turn down the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes in a row. Of course, this would be a smart plan. But there’s more to it than that.

The reason is that it’s not only the volume that’s the issue, it’s the duration. Moderate volume for five hours can be just as damaging as top volume for five minutes.

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

  • Give yourself lots of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer length they are), the better.
  • Use the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more time? Lower the volume.)
  • Quit listening right away if you hear ringing in your ears or your ears begin to hurt.
  • Enable volume alerts on your device. 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.
  • Some smart devices let you lower the max volume so you won’t even have to think about it.
  • As a general rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.

Earbuds particularly, and headphones in general, can be kind of stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. Because sensorineural hearing loss typically happens gradually over time not suddenly. Most of the time people don’t even detect that it’s occurring until it’s too late.

There’s no cure and no way to reverse sensorineural hearing loss

Noise-generated Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is usually permanent. When the stereocilia (small hair-like cells in your ears that detect sound) get destroyed by too much exposure to loud sound, they can never recover.

The damage is scarcely noticeable, especially in the early stages, and progresses slowly over time. NHIL can be difficult to identify as a result. It might be getting gradually worse, in the meantime, 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, sadly, is permanent.

This means prevention is the most useful approach

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

  • Switch up the types of headphones you’re using. That is, don’t use earbuds all day every day. Try using over-the-ear headphones too.
  • When you’re using your devices, make use of volume-limiting apps.
  • When you’re not using your earbuds, reduce the amount of noise damage your ears are subjected to. Avoid exceedingly loud environments whenever you can.
  • Schedule routine visits with us to get your hearing tested. We will be able to help you get tested and track the general health of your hearing.
  • Wear hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Use earplugs, for example.
  • Utilize earbuds and headphones that have noise-canceling technology. With this feature, you will be capable of hearing your media more clearly without having to crank it up quite as loud.

You will be able to preserve your sense of hearing for many years by taking steps to prevent hearing loss, especially NHIL. 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 find your nearest set of earbuds and chuck them in the trash? Not Exactly! Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can get costly.

But your approach may need to be changed if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. These earbuds could be damaging your hearing and you may not even realize it. Being aware of the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

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.

Think you might 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.

Stop struggling to hear conversations. Come see us today. Call or Text