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? 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 poor audio quality.

The old saying “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” applies here.

So when you finally find or buy a working set of earbuds, you’re thankful. Now your life is full of perfectly clear and vibrant audio, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds have a lot of uses other than listening to music and a large percentage of people utilize them.

But, unfortunately, earbuds can present some substantial risks to your hearing because so many people are using them for so many listening activities. Your hearing could be in danger if you’re using earbuds a lot every day.

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 set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is slang for headphones). That’s all now changed. Awesome sound quality can be produced in a very small space with modern earbuds. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone manufacturers popularized these little devices by supplying a pair with every new smartphone purchase (Presently, you don’t see that so much).

These little earbuds (sometimes they even include microphones) began showing up everywhere because they were so high-quality and accessible. Whether you’re out and about, or hanging out at home, earbuds are one of the main ways you’re talking on the phone, viewing your favorite show, or listening to tunes.

It’s that mixture of convenience, mobility, and dependability that makes earbuds practical in a wide variety of contexts. Because of this, many people use them pretty much all the time. That’s where things get a bit challenging.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

Here’s the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all in essence the same thing. They’re simply waves of moving air molecules. It’s your brain that does all the work of interpreting those vibrations, sorting 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. Your inner ear is what really recognizes these vibrations. At that point, you have a nerve in your ear that converts those vibrations into electrical impulses, and that’s what allows your brain to make heads or tails of it all.

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

What are the risks of using earbuds?

The risk of hearing damage is prevalent 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.

Using earbuds can increase your risk of:

  • Continued subjection increasing the advancement of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Hearing loss contributing to mental decline and social isolation.
  • Not being able to communicate with your friends and family without using a hearing aid.
  • Advancing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.

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

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

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

Maybe you think there’s a simple solution: I’ll simply turn down the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite program for 24 episodes straight. Naturally, 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. Modest volume for five hours can be equally as harmful as max volume for five minutes.

When you listen, here are a few ways to make it safer:

  • As a basic rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • Give yourself lots of breaks. It’s best to take frequent and lengthy breaks.
  • Make sure that your device has volume level alerts enabled. These warnings can let you know when your listening volume goes a bit too high. Of course, then it’s up to you to adjust your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.
  • If you are listening at 80% volume, listen for a max of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen longer turn the volume down.
  • If you don’t want to think about it, you may even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.

Your ears can be stressed by utilizing headphones, specifically earbuds. So try to cut your ears some slack. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) develop all of a sudden; it progresses slowly and over time. The majority of the time people don’t even realize that it’s occurring until it’s too late.

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

Typically, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is 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 be restored.

The damage builds up gradually over time, and it usually begins as very limited in scope. NHIL can be difficult to detect as a result. You may think your hearing is just fine, all the while it is gradually getting worse and worse.

There is currently no cure or ability to reverse NIHL. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can minimize the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. But the total damage that’s being done, regrettably, is permanent.

So the ideal plan is prevention

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

  • Use other types of headphones. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other kinds of headphones sometimes. Try using over-the-ear headphones also.
  • Some headphones and earbuds include noise-canceling technology, try to use those. This will mean you won’t have to crank the volume quite so loud in order to hear your media clearly.
  • Schedule routine visits with us to get your hearing checked. We will help establish the overall health of your hearing by getting you screened.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Ear plugs, for example, work remarkably well.
  • Use volume-restricting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, limit the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. This could mean paying additional attention to the sound of your environment or steering clear of overly loud situations.

You will be able to preserve your sense of hearing for many years by taking measures to prevent hearing loss, especially NHIL. 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 throw my earbuds in the trash? Well, no. Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little devices are expensive!

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds regularly, you may want to think about altering your strategy. You may not even recognize that your hearing is being harmed by your earbuds. Your best defense, then, is being aware of the danger.

When you listen, limit the volume, that’s the first step. The second step is to talk to us about the state of your hearing today.

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

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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.

Medical information dates as new research comes out all the time - if you have a concern about your hearing, please call us.

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