Have you ever lost your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, unintentionally left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the laundry?) Suddenly, your morning jog is so much more boring. You have a dull and dreary train ride to work. 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 relieved when you finally get a working set of earbuds. Now your world is full of perfectly clear and vibrant sound, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds are all over the place these days, and people utilize them for so much more than just listening to their favorite tunes (though, obviously, they do that too).
But, regrettably, earbuds can present some significant risks to your ears because so many people use them for so many listening activities. If you’re wearing these devices all day every day, you could be putting your hearing in danger!
Why earbuds are unique
In previous years, you would need bulky, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-quality listening experience. That’s not always the case now. Incredible sound quality can be produced in a very small space with contemporary earbuds. They were made popular by smartphone makers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with basically every smart device sold all through the 2010s (funny enough, they’re pretty rare these days when you buy a new phone).
These little earbuds (frequently they even include microphones) started to show up all over the place because they were so high-quality and available. Whether you’re out and about, or hanging out at home, earbuds are one of the principal ways you’re talking on the phone, streaming your favorite show, or listening to tunes.
It’s that mixture of convenience, portability, and reliability that makes earbuds useful in a large number of contexts. Lots of individuals use them basically all of the time consequently. And that’s become somewhat of a problem.
It’s all vibrations
In essence, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re simply waves of vibrating 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 intermediary for this process. Inside of your ear are very small hairs known as stereocilia that vibrate when subjected to sound. These are not huge vibrations, they’re tiny. These vibrations are recognized 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 allows your brain to figure it all out.
This is significant because it’s not music or drums that cause hearing loss, it’s volume. So whether you’re listening to NPR or Death Metal, the risk is the same.
The risks of earbud use
Because of the popularity of earbuds, the danger of hearing damage due to loud noise is quite widespread. According to one study, over 1 billion young individuals are at risk of developing hearing loss across the globe.
Using earbuds can increase your danger of:
- Sensorineural hearing loss resulting in deafness.
- Repeated subjection increasing the advancement of sensorineural hearing loss.
- Needing to utilize a hearing aid so that you can communicate with family and friends.
- Hearing loss contributing to mental decline and social isolation.
There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds might introduce 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 convinced.
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, too
You may be thinking, well, the solution is simple: I’ll simply lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes straight. Well… that would be helpful. But it may not be the total answer.
This is because how long you listen is as important as how loud it is. Moderate 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:
- Give yourself plenty of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.
- If you’re listening at 80% volume, listen for a max of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn down the volume.
- It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
- If you don’t want to think about it, you may even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.
- Enable volume warnings on your device. If your listening volume goes too high, a notification will alert you. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to reduce the volume.
- If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.
Earbuds specifically, and headphones generally, can be kind of stressful for your ears. So give your ears a break. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (typically) happen all of a sudden; it occurs gradually and over time. The majority of the time people don’t even notice that it’s happening until it’s too late.
Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent
Noise-generated Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is usually 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. That can make NIHL hard to recognize. It might be getting gradually worse, all the while, you believe it’s perfectly fine.
There is presently 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 strategy is prevention
That’s why so many hearing specialists place a considerable emphasis on prevention. Here are some ways to keep listening to your earbuds while decreasing your risk of hearing loss with good prevention routines:
- When you’re not using your earbuds, reduce the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. Avoid excessively loud environments whenever possible.
- Use multiple kinds of headphones. That is, don’t wear earbuds all day every day. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.
- Utilize earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling technology. With this function, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without having to crank it up quite as loud.
- Use volume-controlling apps on your phone and other devices.
- Having your hearing tested by us regularly is a good plan. We will be capable of hearing you get screened and monitor the general health of your hearing.
- Use hearing protection if you’re going to be around loud noises. Ear plugs, for example, work quite well.
Preventing hearing loss, especially NIHL, can help you safeguard your sense of hearing for years longer. And, if you do wind up needing treatment, like hearing aids, they will be more effective.
So… are earbuds the enemy?
So does all this mean you should find your nearest set of earbuds and chuck them in the trash? Well, no. Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little devices are not cheap!
But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds on a regular basis, you may want to consider varying your strategy. You may not even realize that your hearing is being harmed by your earbuds. Being aware of the danger, then, is your best defense against it.
Step one is to control the volume and duration of your listening. 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 tested now!