Can Your Hearing be Harmed by Earbuds?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever misplaced your earbuds? (Or, maybe, unintentionally left them in the pocket of a sweatshirt that went through the laundry?) Now it’s so boring going for a jog in the morning. Your commute or bus ride is dreary and dull. And your virtual meetings are suffering from bad audio quality.

Often, you don’t realize how valuable something is until you have to live without it (yes, we are not being subtle 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 everywhere these days, and people use them for so much more than just listening to their favorite songs (though, naturally, they do that too).

Regrettably, partly because they’re so easy and so ubiquitous, earbuds present some substantial risks for your hearing. If you’re using these devices all day every day, you might be putting your hearing in danger!

Why earbuds are unique

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality audio from a pair of headphones, you’d have to use a bulky, cumbersome pair of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). That’s not always the situation anymore. Modern earbuds can supply amazing sound in a very small space. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone makers popularized these little devices by supplying a pair with every new smartphone purchase (Currently, you don’t find that so much).

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 main ways you’re taking calls, viewing your favorite show, or listening to music.

It’s that mixture of convenience, portability, and reliability that makes earbuds practical in a large number of contexts. Lots of individuals use them pretty much all of the time as a result. That’s where things get a bit tricky.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

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

In this pursuit, your brain receives a big assist from your inner ear. Inside of your ear are tiny little hairs known as stereocilia that vibrate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are infinitesimal, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what really identifies these vibrations. At this stage, you have a nerve in your ear that translates those vibrations into electrical signals, and that’s what lets your brain figure it all out.

It’s not what kind 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.

What are the dangers of using earbuds?

Because of the appeal of earbuds, the danger of hearing damage as a result of loud noise is fairly widespread. Across the globe, more than a billion people are at risk of developing hearing loss, according to one study.

Using earbuds can increase your danger of:

  • Repeated exposure increasing the development of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Needing to use a hearing aid in order to communicate with family and friends.
  • Advancing deafness due to sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Experiencing social isolation or cognitive decline due to hearing loss.

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 think this is the case while others still aren’t sure.

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

Duration is also an issue besides volume

You may be thinking, well, the fix is easy: I’ll simply lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite program for 24 episodes straight. Of course, this would be a smart idea. But there’s more to it than that.

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

  • Give yourself plenty of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.
  • Stop listening right away if you hear ringing in your ears or your ears start to hurt.
  • If you don’t want to think about it, you may even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • 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 reduce the volume.
  • Make use of the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more minutes? Reduce the volume.)
  • As a general rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.

Earbuds specifically, and headphones generally, can be kind of stressful for your ears. So give your ears a break. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (typically) develop suddenly; it occurs slowly and over time. Which means, you might not even acknowledge it happening, at least, not 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 irreversible. When the stereocilia (small hair-like cells in your ears that detect sound) get destroyed by overexposure to loud sound, they can never be restored.

The damage is hardly noticeable, particularly in the early stages, and progresses gradually over time. NHIL can be difficult to identify as a result. It may be getting progressively worse, all the while, you think it’s perfectly fine.

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

So the ideal strategy is prevention

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

  • When you’re not using your earbuds, limit the amount of noise damage your ears are subjected to. Avoid overly loud settings whenever possible.
  • If you do have to go into an extremely loud environment, use ear protection. Use earplugs, for example.
  • Use multiple types of headphones. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones once in a while. Over-the-ear headphones can also be used sometimes.
  • Use volume-restricting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Having your hearing tested by us regularly is a smart plan. We will help determine the overall health of your hearing by having you screened.
  • Use 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.

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?

Well…should I just chuck my earbuds in the rubbish? Well, no. Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can get expensive.

But your strategy may need to be changed if you’re listening to your earbuds constantly. These earbuds could be damaging your hearing and you may not even notice it. Your best defense, then, is knowing about the danger.

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.

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.