Have you ever lost your earbuds? (Or, maybe, accidentally 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 train ride to work. And the sound quality of your virtual meetings suffers substantially.
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 audio, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds are all over the place right now, and people utilize them for a lot more than just listening to their favorite music (though, obviously, they do that too).
But, unfortunately, earbuds can present some substantial risks to your hearing because so many people use them for so many listening activities. Your hearing could be at risk if you’re wearing earbuds a lot every day.
Earbuds are different for numerous reasons
It used to be that if you wanted high-quality audio from a pair of headphones, you’d have to adopt a heavy, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). That’s not always the situation 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 pretty much every smart device sold all through the 2010s (amusing enough, they’re pretty rare these days when you buy a new phone).
In part because these sophisticated earbuds (with microphones, even) were so readily available, they started showing up everywhere. Whether you’re out and about, or hanging out at home, earbuds are one of the principal ways you’re taking calls, streaming your favorite show, or listening to music.
It’s that combination of convenience, portability, and reliability that makes earbuds useful in a wide variety of contexts. As a result, many people use them pretty much all the time. That’s where things get a little tricky.
It’s all vibrations
Here’s the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all basically the same thing. They’re just waves of moving air molecules. Your brain will then classify the vibrations into categories like “voice” or “music”.
Your inner ear is the mediator for this process. Inside of your ear are very small hairs known as stereocilia that vibrate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are minute, they’re tiny. These vibrations are distinguished by your inner ear. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they are converted into electrical signals 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 program.
What are the dangers of using earbuds?
The risk of hearing damage is prevalent 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.
On an individual level, when you utilize earbuds at high volume, you raise your danger of:
- Hearing loss contributing to cognitive decline and social isolation.
- Advancing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.
- Not being able to communicate with your family and friends without using a hearing aid.
- Repeated subjection increasing the advancement of sensorineural hearing loss.
There’s some evidence to suggest that using earbuds may present greater risks than using conventional headphones. The idea here is that the sound is directed toward the more sensitive parts of your ear. Some audiologists believe this while others still aren’t sure.
Either way, volume is the principal consideration, and both kinds of headphones can deliver hazardous levels of that.
Duration is also a concern besides volume
You might be thinking, well, the solution is simple: I’ll just lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite program for 24 episodes straight. Well… that would help. But there’s more to it than that.
This is because how long you listen is as significant as how loud it is. Think about it like this: listening at max volume for five minutes will harm your ears. But listening at medium volume for five hours could also harm your ears.
When you listen, here are a few ways to make it safer:
- Some smart devices allow you to decrease the max volume so you won’t even have to worry about it.
- If you are listening at 80% volume, listen for a maximum of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn down the volume.
- Make sure that your device has volume level alerts enabled. These warnings can let you know when your listening volume gets a little too high. Naturally, then it’s up to you to lower your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
- If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.
- Give yourself lots of breaks. It’s best to take frequent and extended breaks.
- As a general rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
Your ears can be stressed by utilizing headphones, particularly earbuds. So try to cut your ears some slack. Because sensorineural hearing loss typically happens slowly over time not suddenly. Most of the time people don’t even recognize that it’s occurring until it’s too late.
Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent
Noise-generated Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is typically irreversible. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear are irreversibly damaged because of noise).
The damage is barely noticeable, particularly in the early stages, and develops slowly over time. NHIL can be difficult to identify as a result. You might think your hearing is perfectly fine, all the while it’s slowly getting worse and worse.
There is currently no cure or capability of reversing NIHL. Still, there are treatments created to mitigate and minimize some of the most significant effects of sensorineural hearing loss (the most prevalent of such treatments is a hearing aid). But the overall damage that’s being done, regrettably, is permanent.
So the best strategy is prevention
That’s why so many hearing specialists put a significant emphasis on prevention. And there are several ways to lower your risk of hearing loss, and to practice good prevention, even while using your earbuds:
- If you do need to go into an overly noisy environment, utilize ear protection. Use earplugs, for example.
- Schedule routine visits with us to get your hearing examined. We will be able to help you get tested and monitor the general health of your hearing.
- Use volume-limiting apps on your phone and other devices.
- Change up the styles of headphones you’re wearing. That is, don’t use earbuds all day every day. Try utilizing over-the-ear headphones also.
- Some headphones and earbuds come with noise-canceling technology, try to utilize those. With this function, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without having to turn it up quite as loud.
- When you’re not using your earbuds, minimize the amount of noise damage your ears are subjected to. Avoid excessively loud settings whenever you can.
Preventing hearing loss, especially NIHL, can help you safeguard your sense of hearing for years longer. And, if you do wind up requiring treatment, like hearing aids, they will be more effective.
So… are earbuds the enemy?
Well…should I just throw my earbuds in the garbage? Well, no. Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little devices are expensive!
But your strategy could need to be changed if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. These earbuds could be damaging your hearing and you may not even realize it. Knowing the danger, then, is your best defense against it.
Step one is to control the volume and duration of your listening. The second step is to speak with us about the state of your hearing right away.
Think you might have damaged your hearing with earbuds? We can help! Get tested now!