Can Your Ears be Damaged by Earbuds?

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? Now it’s so boring going for a walk in the morning. You have a dull and dreary commute to work. And the audio quality of your virtual meetings suffers significantly.

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. The world is instantly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear audio. 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).

Unfortunately, in part because they’re so easy and so common, earbuds present some substantial risks for your ears. Your hearing could be in danger 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 set of headphones, you’d have to use a heavy, cumbersome pair of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). All that has now changed. Awesome sound quality can be created in a really small space with contemporary earbuds. 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 nowadays when you buy a new phone).

These little earbuds (frequently they even have 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 principal ways you’re talking on the phone, streaming your favorite show, or listening to tunes.

Earbuds are practical in a number of contexts because of their reliability, portability, and convenience. Consequently, many consumers use them almost all the time. And that’s become a bit of an issue.

It’s all vibrations

Basically, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re just air molecules being vibrated by waves of pressure. It’s your brain that does all the heavy lifting of interpreting those vibrations, sorting one kind 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 oscillate when exposed to sound. These are not huge vibrations, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what really recognizes these vibrations. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they’re transformed into electrical signals by a nerve in your ear.

It’s not what kind of sound but volume that causes hearing damage. Which means the risk is the same whether you’re listening to Death Metal or an NPR program.

What are the dangers of using earbuds?

Because of the appeal of earbuds, the risk of hearing damage as a result of loud noise is very prevalent. 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:

  • Repeated subjection increasing the advancement of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss leading to deafness.
  • Hearing loss contributing to mental decline and social isolation.
  • Needing to use a hearing aid in order to communicate with friends and loved ones.

There’s some evidence to suggest that using earbuds may introduce greater risks than using regular headphones. The reason might be that earbuds direct sound right to the most sensitive components of the 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 able to deliver hazardous levels of sound.

Duration is also a concern besides volume

Perhaps you think there’s an easy fix: I’ll simply turn down the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes straight. Of course, this would be a good plan. But it might not be the total solution.

This is because how long you listen is as important as how loud it is. Think about it like this: listening at max volume for five minutes will damage your ears. But listening at medium volume for five hours could also harm your ears.

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

  • Many smart devices allow you to reduce the max volume so you won’t even have to think about it.
  • If you’re listening at 80% volume, listen for a max of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen longer turn the volume down.
  • Enable volume alerts on your device. These warnings can alert you when your listening volume gets a bit too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to reduce the volume.
  • Give yourself plenty of breaks. The more breaks (and the longer duration they are), the better.
  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.
  • As a basic rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.

Your ears can be stressed by using headphones, particularly earbuds. So give your ears a break. Because sensorineural hearing loss usually occurs slowly over time not immediately. The majority of the time people don’t even realize that it’s occurring 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 destroyed because of noise).

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

Unfortunately, NIHL cannot be cured or reversed. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can mitigate the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. But the overall damage that’s being done, regrettably, is irreversible.

This means prevention is the most useful approach

This is why prevention is emphasized by so many hearing specialists. Here are several ways to continue to listen to your earbuds while decreasing your risk of hearing loss with good prevention practices:

  • Use volume-limiting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Limit the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you’re not wearing earbuds. This could mean paying additional attention to the sound of your surroundings or avoiding overly loud situations.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Ear plugs, for example, work exceptionally well.
  • Change up the styles of headphones you’re using. That is, don’t wear earbuds all day every day. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.
  • Getting your hearing tested by us routinely is a good plan. 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 turn the volume quite so high in order to hear your media clearly.

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

So… are earbuds the enemy?

So does all this mean you should find your nearest pair of earbuds and chuck them in the garbage? Not Exactly! Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can get expensive.

But your strategy may need to be changed if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. These earbuds could be damaging your hearing and you may not even recognize it. Knowing 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!

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.