Can Your Hearing be Damaged by Earbuds?

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 walk in the morning. Your commute or bus ride is dreary and dull. And the audio quality of your virtual meetings suffers considerably.

Sometimes, you don’t recognize how valuable something is until you have to live without it (yes, we are not being subtle around here today).

So when you finally find or buy a working pair of earbuds, you’re grateful. Now your life is full of completely clear and vibrant audio, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds have so many uses other than listening to tunes and a large percentage of people use them.

But, unfortunately, earbuds can present some considerable 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 could be putting your hearing in danger!

Why earbuds are different

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a pair of headphones, you’d have to use a bulky, cumbersome pair of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is slang for headphones). That’s all now changed. Modern earbuds can provide stunning 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 (amusing enough, they’re rather rare these days when you purchase a new phone).

These little earbuds (sometimes they even include microphones) began showing up all over the place because they were so high-quality and available. Whether you’re taking calls, listening to tunes, or watching movies, earbuds are one of the primary ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).

Earbuds are useful in quite a few contexts because of their reliability, mobility, and convenience. Lots of individuals use them basically all of the time as a result. And that’s become a bit of a problem.

It’s all vibrations

This is the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all essentially the same thing. They’re simply waves of moving air molecules. It’s your brain that does all the heavy lifting of interpreting those vibrations, organizing one type of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

Your inner ear is the mediator for this process. Inside of your ear are tiny little hairs known as stereocilia that vibrate when subjected to sound. These vibrations are minute, they’re tiny. These vibrations are recognized by your inner ear. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they’re converted into electrical impulses by a nerve in your ear.

It’s not what kind of sound but volume that causes hearing loss. Which means the risk is the same whether you’re listening to Death Metal or an NPR podcast.

What are the dangers of using earbuds?

The danger of hearing damage is widespread 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.

Using earbuds can raise your risk of:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss resulting in deafness.
  • Needing to utilize a hearing aid so that you can communicate with friends and loved ones.
  • Going through social isolation or cognitive decline due to hearing loss.
  • Repeated subjection increasing the development of sensorineural hearing loss.

There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds might present greater risks than using regular headphones. The reason may be that earbuds direct sound right to the most sensitive components of the ear. But the jury’s still out on this, and not all audiologists are convinced.

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

It’s not only volume, it’s duration, as well

Perhaps you think there’s a simple fix: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming program, I’ll simply reduce the volume. Well… that would be helpful. But it might not be the complete answer.

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.

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

  • Use the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more time? Lower the volume.)
  • If you don’t want to worry about it, you may even be able to change the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • As a basic rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • Enable volume warnings on your device. If your listening volume gets too high, a notification will alert you. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to lower the volume.
  • Stop listening right away if you hear ringing in your ears or your ears start to hurt.
  • Take regular breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.

Earbuds particularly, and headphones in general, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (typically) develop suddenly; it occurs gradually and over time. Most of the time people don’t even realize that it’s happening until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent

Noise-generated Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is usually permanent. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear become irreversibly damaged because of noise).

The damage accumulates slowly over time, and it normally begins as very limited in scope. NHIL can be hard to identify as a result. It may be getting slowly worse, in the meantime, you believe it’s perfectly fine.

There is presently no cure or capability of reversing NIHL. Still, there are treatments designed to mitigate and minimize some of the most considerable impacts of sensorineural hearing loss (the most prevalent of such treatments is a hearing aid). These treatments, however, are not able to counter the damage that’s been done.

This means prevention is the most useful strategy

That’s why so many hearing specialists put a substantial emphasis on prevention. And there are a number of ways to reduce your risk of hearing loss, and to practice good prevention, even while using your earbuds:

  • If you do need to go into an overly noisy environment, utilize ear protection. Use earplugs, for instance.
  • Many headphones and earbuds incorporate noise-canceling technology, try to use those. This will mean you won’t have to crank the volume quite so loud so that you can hear your media clearly.
  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, minimize the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. This could mean paying extra attention to the sound of your surroundings or avoiding overly loud situations.
  • When you’re using your devices, use volume-limiting apps.
  • Make routine visits with us to get your hearing examined. We will be capable of hearing you get tested and monitor the overall health of your hearing.
  • Switch up the types of headphones you’re wearing. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones now and then. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.

Preventing hearing loss, especially NIHL, can help you preserve your sense of hearing for years longer. And, if you do wind up needing treatment, such as hearing aids, they will be more effective.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

So does all this mean you should find your nearest pair of earbuds and chuck them in the trash? Well, no. Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can get costly.

But your approach may need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. You may not even realize that your hearing is being harmed by your earbuds. Knowing the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

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

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.