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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? All of a sudden, your morning jog is so much more boring. You have a dull and dreary train ride to work. And the sound quality of your virtual meetings suffers considerably.

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 pair of earbuds. Now your world is full of perfectly clear and vibrant sound, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds are all over the place right now, and individuals utilize them for a lot more than just listening to their favorite songs (though, naturally, they do that too).

But, regrettably, earbuds can present some considerable risks to your ears because so many people use them for so many listening activities. Your hearing could be in jeopardy if you’re wearing 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 adopt a heavy, cumbersome pair of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is slang for headphones). That’s not always the case anymore. Fabulous sound quality can be created in a really small space with modern earbuds. They were made popular by smartphone makers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with pretty much every smart device sold all through the 2010s (amusing enough, they’re pretty rare these days when you buy a new phone).

These little earbuds (sometimes they even include microphones) began showing up everywhere because they were so high-quality and available. Whether you’re out and about, or hanging out at home, earbuds are one of the leading ways you’re taking calls, streaming your favorite program, or listening to tunes.

Earbuds are practical in quite a few contexts because of their reliability, portability, and convenience. Because of this, many consumers use them pretty much all the time. That’s where things get a bit challenging.

It’s all vibrations

Basically, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re simply air molecules being vibrated by waves of pressure. Your brain will then sort the vibrations into categories like “voice” or “music”.

In this pursuit, your brain receives a big assist from your inner ear. Inside of your ear are very small hairs called stereocilia that oscillate when subjected to sound. These are not huge vibrations, they’re very small. These vibrations are distinguished by your inner ear. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they are converted into electrical impulses by a nerve in your ear.

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

The risks of earbud use

Because of the popularity of earbuds, the risk of hearing damage due to loud noise is fairly widespread. According to one study, over 1 billion young individuals are at risk of developing hearing loss across the globe.

On an individual level, when you utilize earbuds at high volume, you increase your danger of:

  • Developing sensorineural hearing loss with repeated exposure.
  • Developing deafness due to sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Needing to utilize a hearing aid so that you can communicate with family and friends.
  • Hearing loss contributing to cognitive decline and social isolation.

There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds might present greater risks than using conventional headphones. The thinking here is that the sound is funneled directly toward the more sensitive components of your ear. But the jury’s still out on this, and not all audiologists are on board.

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

It’s not just volume, it’s duration, too

You might be thinking, well, the solution is easy: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming show, I’ll just reduce the volume. Well… that would help. But it may not be the total solution.

The reason is that it’s not simply the volume that’s the issue, it’s the duration. Modest volume for five hours can be just as harmful as top volume for five minutes.

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

  • If you’re listening at 80% volume, listen for a maximum of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen longer turn the volume down.
  • Give yourself lots of breaks. It’s best to take regular and lengthy breaks.
  • Quit listening immediately if you hear ringing in your ears or your ears start to ache.
  • It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
  • Many smart devices let you lower the max volume so you won’t even have to think about it.
  • Make sure that your device has volume level warnings enabled. If your listening volume gets too high, a warning will alert you. Once you hear this alert, it’s your job to reduce the volume.

Earbuds particularly, and headphones in general, can be kind of stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. Because sensorineural hearing loss typically happens gradually over time not immediately. Which means, you might not even recognize it occurring, at least, not until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent

Noise-generated Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is usually irreversible. 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 accumulates gradually over time, and it normally begins as very limited in scope. That can make NIHL difficult to recognize. You might think your hearing is just fine, all the while it’s slowly getting worse and worse.

Sadly, NIHL can’t be cured or reversed. 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 reverse the damage that’s been done.

This means prevention is the best strategy

This is why prevention is stressed by so many hearing specialists. And there are several ways to reduce your risk of hearing loss, and to exercise good prevention, even while using your earbuds:

  • Make regular visits with us to have your hearing tested. We will be able to help you get assessed and track the general health of your hearing.
  • Many headphones and earbuds come with 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.
  • Use other kinds of headphones. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones now and then. Over-the-ear headphones can also be used sometimes.
  • When you’re listening to your devices, make use of volume-limiting apps.
  • Wear hearing protection if you’re going to be around loud noises. Wear earplugs, for instance.
  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, minimize the amount of noise damage your ears are subjected to. This could mean paying additional attention to the sound of your surroundings or avoiding overly loud situations.

You will be able to preserve your sense of hearing for many years by taking steps to prevent hearing loss, especially NHIL. It can also help make treatments such as hearing aids more effective when you do eventually 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 garbage? Well, no. Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can be expensive.

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds regularly, you may want to think about changing your approach. You might not even recognize that your hearing is being damaged by your earbuds. Knowing the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

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 think you might have damage because of overuse of earbuds, call us right away! We Can Help!

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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.