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? All of a sudden, your morning jog is a million times more boring. Your commute or train ride is dreary and dull. And your virtual meetings are suffering from bad 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 set of earbuds. The world is instantly vibrant again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear audio. Earbuds are all over the place these days, and people use them for so much more than just listening to their favorite songs (though, of course, they do that too).

But, unfortunately, earbuds can present some considerable risks to your hearing because so many people use them for so many listening tasks. Your hearing may be at risk if you’re using earbuds a lot every day.

Why earbuds are unique

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a pair of headphones, you’d have to adopt a heavy, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is slang for headphones). All that has now changed. Contemporary earbuds can provide fantastic sound in a tiny space. They were made popular by smartphone manufacturers, who included a shiny new pair of earbuds with pretty much every smartphone sold throughout the 2010s (At present, you don’t find that as much).

In part because these sophisticated earbuds (with microphones, even) were so easily accessible, they began showing up all over the place. Whether you’re out and about, or hanging out at home, earbuds are one of the leading ways you’re taking calls, streaming your favorite show, or listening to tunes.

Earbuds are useful in quite a few contexts because of their reliability, portability, and convenience. Because of this, many consumers use them virtually all the time. That’s where things get a little challenging.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

This is the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all essentially the same thing. They’re simply waves of vibrating air molecules. Your brain will then classify the vibrations into categories like “voice” or “music”.

Your inner ear is the mediator for this process. There are tiny hairs along your ear that oscillate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are minute, they’re tiny. These vibrations are distinguished by your inner ear. At that point, there’s a nerve in your ear that translates those vibrations into electrical impulses, and that’s what lets your brain figure it all out.

This is significant because it’s not music or drums that cause hearing damage, it’s volume. Which means the risk is equivalent whether you’re listening to Death Metal or an NPR program.

The risks of earbud use

The risk of hearing damage is widespread because of the popularity of earbuds. According to one study, over 1 billion young individuals are at risk of developing hearing loss across the globe.

On an individual level, when you utilize earbuds at high volume, you raise your danger of:

  • Developing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Repeated subjection increasing the development of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Not being capable of communicating with your friends and family without wearing a hearing aid.
  • Hearing loss contributing to cognitive decline and social isolation.

There’s some evidence to suggest that using earbuds might present greater risks than using regular headphones. The reason may be that earbuds direct sound right to the most sensitive parts of the ear. Some audiologists believe this while others still aren’t sure.

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 a simple solution: I’ll just lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes in a row. Naturally, this would be a smart plan. But there’s more to it than that.

The reason is that it’s not just the volume that’s the issue, it’s the duration. Think about it like this: listening at top volume for five minutes will damage your ears. But listening at medium volume for five hours might also harm your ears.

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

  • Give yourself lots of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.
  • As a basic 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 time? Reduce the volume.)
  • If you don’t want to think about it, you might even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • Stop listening right away if you notice ringing in your ears or your ears start to hurt.
  • Make sure that your device has volume level alerts enabled. These warnings can inform you about when your listening volume goes a bit too high. Naturally, then it’s your job to lower your volume, but it’s better than nothing!

Earbuds particularly, and headphones generally, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. Because sensorineural hearing loss typically happens slowly over time not immediately. Which means, you might not even notice it happening, at least, not until it’s too late.

There is no cure and no way to reverse sensorineural hearing loss

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

The damage is hardly noticeable, especially in the early stages, and develops gradually over time. That can make NIHL hard to detect. You may think your hearing is just fine, all the while it is gradually getting worse and worse.

Unfortunately, NIHL cannot be cured or reversed. 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 plan is prevention

That’s why so many hearing specialists place a significant focus on prevention. And there are a number of ways to lower your risk of hearing loss, and to practice good prevention, even while listening to your earbuds:

  • Utilize earbuds and headphones that have 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.
  • When you’re not using your earbuds, reduce the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. Avoid excessively loud environments whenever possible.
  • Wear hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Ear plugs, for example, work exceptionally well.
  • Switch up the types of headphones you’re wearing. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones now and then. Try using over-the-ear headphones as well.
  • When you’re listening to your devices, make use of volume-limiting apps.
  • Getting your hearing tested by us routinely is a smart plan. We will be able to help you get tested and track the general health of your hearing.

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

So… are earbuds the enemy?

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

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds regularly, you may want to think about varying your strategy. These earbuds may be harming your hearing and you may not even realize it. Being aware of the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

When you listen, limit the volume, that’s the first step. But talking to us about the state of your hearing is the next step.

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

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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.

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