Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever misplaced your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, accidentally left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the washer and dryer?) All of a sudden, your morning jog is so much more boring. Your commute or train ride is dreary and dull. And your virtual meetings are suffering from bad audio quality.

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

So when you finally find or buy a working set of earbuds, you’re thankful. 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 people use them.

But, unfortunately, 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 may be putting your hearing in danger!

Earbuds are unique for numerous reasons

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound 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). All that has now changed. Contemporary earbuds can supply amazing sound in a very small space. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone makers popularized these little devices by offering a pair with every new smartphone purchase (amusing enough, they’re pretty rare these days when you purchase a new phone).

Partly because these high-quality earbuds (with microphones, even) were so easily accessible, they began showing up all over the place. Whether you’re out and about, or spending time at home, earbuds are one of the leading ways you’re talking on the phone, streaming your favorite program, or listening to music.

Earbuds are practical in a number of contexts because of their reliability, mobility, and convenience. Lots of individuals use them basically all of the time as a result. That’s where things get a little challenging.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

Basically, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re simply air molecules being vibrated by waves of pressure. It’s your brain that does all the heavy lifting of interpreting those vibrations, grouping one kind of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

In this activity, your brain is given a big assist from your inner ear. There are tiny hairs inside of your ear that vibrate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are infinitesimal, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what really identifies these vibrations. At that point, there’s a nerve in your ear that translates those vibrations into electrical impulses, and that’s what lets your brain make heads or tails of it all.

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

What are the risks of using earbuds?

The danger of hearing damage is prevalent 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.

Using earbuds can raise your risk of:

  • Repeated subjection increasing the development of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Not being able to communicate with your family and friends without wearing a hearing aid.
  • Experiencing social isolation or mental decline as a consequence of hearing loss.
  • Developing deafness due to sensorineural hearing loss.

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

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

Duration is also an issue besides volume

Maybe you think there’s an easy solution: I’ll simply turn down the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes straight. Well… that would help. But there’s more to it than that.

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

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

  • Make use of the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more minutes? Reduce the volume.)
  • Be certain that your device has volume level alerts enabled. These warnings can alert you when your listening volume goes a little too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your job to lower the volume.
  • If your ears start to experience pain or ringing, immediately quit listening.
  • If you don’t want to worry about it, you might even be able to change the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • As a general rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • Take regular breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.

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

Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent

Typically, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is permanent. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear are irreversibly damaged because of noise).

The damage is scarcely noticeable, particularly in the early stages, and progresses slowly over time. That can make NIHL difficult to recognize. It may be getting progressively worse, all the while, you believe it’s just fine.

There is presently no cure or ability to reverse NIHL. Still, there are treatments designed to offset and minimize some of the most significant impacts of sensorineural hearing loss (the most prevalent of such treatments is a hearing aid). But the overall damage that’s being done, unfortunately, is permanent.

This means prevention is the best strategy

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

  • Many headphones and earbuds incorporate noise-canceling technology, try to use those. This will mean you won’t need to turn the volume quite so high in order to hear your media clearly.
  • Use volume-restricting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • If you do have to go into an overly loud setting, utilize ear protection. Ear plugs, for instance, work remarkably well.
  • Limit the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you’re not using earbuds. Avoid exceedingly loud settings whenever you can.
  • Getting your hearing checked by us regularly is a good plan. We will be able to help you get screened and monitor the general health of your hearing.
  • Use multiple types of headphones. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other kinds of headphones now and then. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.

You will be able to preserve your sense of hearing for many years by taking actions to prevent hearing loss, particularly 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 find your nearest set of earbuds and chuck them in the trash? Not Exactly! Especially not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little gizmos are expensive!

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds on a regular basis, you may want to consider varying your strategy. These earbuds may be damaging your hearing and you may not even notice it. Knowing 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.

Think you might have damaged your hearing with earbuds? We can help! Get assessed now!

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