Can Your Ears be Damaged by Earbuds?

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 wash or maybe lost them altogether? Suddenly, your morning jog is a million times more boring. You have a dull and dreary train ride to work. And your virtual meetings are suffering from poor sound quality.

Sometimes, you don’t realize how valuable something is until you’ve lost 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. The world is suddenly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear sound. Earbuds are everywhere nowadays, and people utilize them for so much more than just listening to their favorite tunes (though, obviously, they do that too).

Regrettably, partly because they are so easy and so ubiquitous, earbuds present some significant risks for your ears. If you’re wearing these devices all day every day, you could be putting your hearing in jeopardy!

Why earbuds are different

In previous years, you would require bulky, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-quality listening experience. That’s not necessarily the case anymore. Incredible sound quality can be produced in a really small space with modern earbuds. They were popularized by smartphone makers, who included a shiny new pair of earbuds with basically every smartphone sold throughout the 2010s (Presently, you don’t see that so much).

In part because these high-quality earbuds (with microphones, even) were so readily available, they started showing up everywhere. Whether you’re talking on the phone, listening to music, or watching Netflix, earbuds are one of the primary ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).

It’s that combination of convenience, mobility, and reliability that makes earbuds practical in a large number of contexts. Because of this, many people use them pretty much all the time. That’s where things get a little tricky.

It’s all vibrations

In essence, 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 translating those vibrations, organizing one kind of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

In this pursuit, your brain receives a big assist from your inner ear. Inside of your ear are very small hairs known as stereocilia that oscillate when exposed to sound. These are not large vibrations, they’re very small. Your inner ear is what really identifies these vibrations. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they’re converted into electrical impulses by a nerve in your ear.

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

The dangers of earbud use

The danger 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.

Using earbuds can raise your danger of:

  • Not being capable of communicating with your friends and family without using a hearing aid.
  • Going through social isolation or mental decline as a consequence of hearing loss.
  • Developing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Repeated subjection increasing the advancement of sensorineural hearing loss.

There may be a greater risk with earbuds than traditional headphones, according to some evidence. The idea here is that the sound is funneled directly toward the more sensitive parts of your ear. Some audiologists think this is the case 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.

It’s not only volume, it’s duration, also

You might be thinking, well, the solution is easy: I’ll simply lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite program for 24 episodes straight. Naturally, this would be a good plan. But there’s more to it than that.

This is because how long you listen is as crucial as how loud it is. Moderate volume for five hours can be equally as damaging as top volume for five minutes.

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

  • Stop listening immediately if you experience ringing in your ears or your ears start to hurt.
  • Many smart devices let you lower the max volume so you won’t even have to think about it.
  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • If you are listening at 80% volume, listen for a maximum of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn the volume down.
  • Enable volume alerts on your device. These warnings can alert you when your listening volume goes a bit too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your job to lower the volume.
  • Give yourself lots of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer length they are), the better.

Your ears can be stressed by utilizing headphones, particularly earbuds. So give your ears a break. Because sensorineural hearing loss normally happens gradually over time not immediately. Which means, you may not even acknowledge it occurring, at least, not until it’s too late.

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

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is typically permanent. When the stereocilia (small hair-like cells in your ears that detect sound) get damaged by overexposure to loud sound, they can never recover.

The damage accumulates slowly over time, and it normally starts as very limited in scope. NHIL can be difficult to identify as a result. It might be getting progressively worse, all the while, you think it’s just fine.

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. 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 place a significant emphasis on prevention. And there are several ways to decrease your risk of hearing loss, and to practice good prevention, even while using your earbuds:

  • Use earbuds and headphones that have noise-canceling tech. This will mean you won’t need to crank the volume quite so loud so that you can hear your media clearly.
  • Getting your hearing checked by us regularly is a smart plan. We will help establish the overall health of your hearing by having you screened.
  • Change up the styles of headphones you’re wearing. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones sometimes. Try using over-the-ear headphones too.
  • Control the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you’re not using earbuds. This could mean paying extra attention to the sound of your environment or avoiding overly loud scenarios.
  • Wear hearing protection if you’re going to be around loud noises. Wear earplugs, for example.
  • Use volume-controlling apps on your phone and other devices.

Preventing hearing loss, especially NIHL, can help you preserve your sense of hearing for years longer. It can also help make treatments such as hearing aids more effective when you do eventually require them.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

So does all this mean you should grab your nearest set of earbuds and chuck them in the trash? Not Exactly! Especially not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little devices are not cheap!

But your strategy may need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds constantly. These earbuds may be damaging your hearing and you may not even recognize it. 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 consult with us about the state of your hearing today.

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

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.