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Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever misplaced your earbuds? (Or, maybe, unintentionally left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the washer and dryer?) Suddenly, your morning jog is so much more boring. You have a dull and dreary commute to work. And your virtual meetings are suffering from poor audio quality.

Often, you don’t realize how valuable something is until you’ve lost it (yes, we are not being subtle around here today).

So you’re so happy 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 nowadays, and people utilize them for so much more than just listening to their favorite tunes (though, obviously, they do that too).

Unfortunately, partly because they’re so easy and so widely used, earbuds present some considerable risks for your ears. If you’re using these devices all day every day, you could be putting your hearing in jeopardy!

Why earbuds are unique

In the past, you would need bulky, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-quality listening experience. That’s all now changed. Contemporary earbuds can provide stunning sound in a tiny space. They were popularized by smartphone manufacturers, who included a shiny new pair of earbuds with basically every smartphone sold throughout the 2010s (At present, you don’t find that so much).

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 spending time at home, earbuds are one of the leading ways you’re talking on the phone, viewing your favorite show, or listening to music.

It’s that mixture of convenience, mobility, and dependability that makes earbuds practical in a large number of contexts. Consequently, many consumers use them almost all the time. And that’s become a bit of a problem.

It’s all vibrations

This is the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all essentially the same thing. They’re just waves of vibrating air molecules. It’s your brain that does all the heavy lifting of translating those vibrations, grouping one type of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

In this endeavor, your brain receives a big assist from your inner ear. Inside of your ear are very small hairs known as stereocilia that vibrate when subjected to sound. These are not huge vibrations, they’re very small. Your inner ear is what really recognizes these vibrations. At this stage, there’s a nerve in your ear that translates those vibrations into electrical impulses, and that’s what allows your brain to make heads or tails of it all.

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.

What are the risks of using earbuds?

Because of the appeal of earbuds, the danger of hearing damage as a result of loud noise is fairly prevalent. Across the globe, more than a billion people are at risk of developing hearing loss, according to one study.

On an individual level, when you use earbuds at high volume, you increase your risk of:

  • Experiencing sensorineural hearing loss with repeated exposure.
  • Hearing loss contributing to cognitive decline and social isolation.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss leading to deafness.
  • Not being able to communicate with your friends and family without using a hearing aid.

There’s some evidence suggesting that using earbuds might introduce greater risks than using conventional headphones. The reason may be that earbuds direct sound right to the most sensitive components of the ear. Some audiologists believe this while others still aren’t convinced.

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

Duration is also a concern besides volume

Maybe you think there’s an easy fix: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming show, I’ll just lower the volume. Well… that would be helpful. But it might not be the total answer.

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 harm your ears. But listening at moderate volume for five hours could also damage your ears.

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

  • As a general rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • Use the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more time? Lower the volume.)
  • Make sure that your device has volume level warnings enabled. These warnings can inform you about when your listening volume goes a bit too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to reduce the volume.
  • Take regular breaks. It’s best to take regular and lengthy breaks.
  • If you don’t want to worry about it, you may even be able to change the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • Stop listening immediately if you hear ringing in your ears or your ears start to hurt.

Earbuds particularly, and headphones in general, can be kind of stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) happen suddenly; it occurs slowly and over time. Which means, you might not even acknowledge it occurring, at least, not until it’s too late.

Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent

Usually, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is irreversible. When the stereocilia (small hair-like cells in your ears that detect sound) get damaged by overexposure to loud sound, they can never be restored.

The damage is hardly noticeable, particularly in the early stages, and develops gradually over time. That can make NIHL difficult to recognize. You may think your hearing is just fine, all the while it’s slowly getting worse and worse.

There is presently no cure or ability to reverse NIHL. However, there are treatments designed to offset and minimize some of the most considerable impacts of sensorineural hearing loss (the most popular of such treatments is a hearing aid). These treatments, however, are not able to counter the damage that’s been done.

This means prevention is the best strategy

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

  • Use multiple kinds of headphones. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other kinds of headphones sometimes. Try utilizing over-the-ear headphones also.
  • When you’re using your devices, use volume-limiting apps.
  • Use earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling technology. This will mean you won’t have to turn the volume quite so high in order to hear your media clearly.
  • If you do need to go into an overly noisy setting, utilize hearing protection. Use earplugs, for instance.
  • Limit the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you’re not using earbuds. Avoid exceedingly loud settings whenever possible.
  • Having your hearing checked by us routinely is a smart plan. We will help determine the overall health of your hearing by having you screened.

You will be able to preserve your sense of hearing for many years by taking steps to prevent hearing loss, particularly NHIL. And, if you do end up needing treatment, like hearing aids, they will be more effective.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

Well…should I just chuck my earbuds in the garbage? Not Exactly! Especially 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 might want to consider varying your strategy. These earbuds could be harming your hearing and you might not even realize it. 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 speaking with us about the state of your hearing is the next step.

Think you may 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.
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