Illini Hearing - Champaign and Mahomet, IL

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever lost your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, inadvertently left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the washer and dryer?) Suddenly, your morning jog is a million times more boring. Your commute or train ride is dreary and dull. And your virtual meetings are suffering from bad audio quality.

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

So when you finally find or buy a working pair of earbuds, you’re thankful. The world is instantly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear audio. Earbuds are everywhere these days, and individuals use them for so much more than simply listening to their favorite music (though, naturally, they do that too).

Regrettably, partly because they’re so easy and so common, earbuds present some significant risks for your hearing. Your hearing might be at risk if you’re wearing earbuds a lot every day.

Why earbuds are unique

In the past, you would need cumbersome, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-quality listening experience. All that has now changed. Modern earbuds can supply fantastic sound in a tiny space. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone manufacturers popularized these little devices by offering a pair with every new smartphone purchase (At present, you don’t see that as much).

In part because these high-quality earbuds (with microphones, even) were so easily accessible, they started showing up all over the place. Whether you’re talking on the phone, listening to music, or watching Netflix, earbuds are one of the chief ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).

It’s that mixture of convenience, mobility, and reliability that makes earbuds practical in a large number of contexts. Lots of individuals use them pretty much all of the time as a result. That’s where things get a bit challenging.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

In essence, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re simply air molecules being moved by waves of pressure. It’s your brain that does all the work of interpreting those vibrations, sorting one kind of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

In this endeavor, your brain gets a big assist from your inner ear. There are tiny hairs along your ear that vibrate when exposed to sound. These are not big vibrations, they’re very small. Your inner ear is what actually recognizes these vibrations. At that point, there’s a nerve in your ear that converts those vibrations into electrical signals, and that’s what allows your brain to figure it all out.

This is important because it’s not music or drums that cause hearing damage, it’s volume. So whether you’re listening to NPR or Death Metal, the risk is exactly the same.

The risks of earbud use

The risk of hearing damage is prevalent because of the appeal of earbuds. 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 raise your risk of:

  • Needing to use a hearing aid in order to communicate with family and friends.
  • Developing sensorineural hearing loss with continued exposure.
  • Going through social isolation or mental decline as a result of hearing loss.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss leading to deafness.

There could be a greater risk with earbuds than conventional headphones, according to some evidence. The thinking here is that the sound is directed toward the more sensitive parts of your ear. Some audiologists believe this while others still aren’t convinced.

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

It’s not simply volume, it’s duration, also

You might be thinking, well, the fix is simple: I’ll simply lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite program for 24 episodes in a row. Obviously, this would be a good plan. But it might not be the complete answer.

The reason is that it’s not only the volume that’s the problem, it’s the duration. Moderate volume for five hours can be equally as damaging as top volume for five minutes.

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

  • As a basic rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • 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.
  • Take regular breaks. It’s best to take frequent and lengthy breaks.
  • Some smart devices allow you to decrease the max volume so you won’t even need to think about it.
  • Quit listening right away if you notice ringing in your ears or your ears begin to ache.
  • Enable volume warnings on your device. If your listening volume gets too high, a notification 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. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) develop suddenly; it occurs gradually and over time. Which means, you might not even recognize it occurring, at least, not until it’s too late.

There is no cure and no way to reverse sensorineural hearing loss

Typically, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is permanent. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear are irreparably destroyed due to noise).

The damage is scarcely noticeable, especially in the early stages, and develops gradually over time. NHIL can be hard to detect as a result. It may be getting progressively worse, all the while, you believe it’s perfectly fine.

There is currently no cure or ability to reverse NIHL. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can reduce the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. These treatments, however, can’t counter the damage that’s been done.

This means prevention is the most useful approach

That’s why so many hearing specialists place a considerable emphasis on prevention. Here are several ways to continue to listen to your earbuds while lowering your risk of hearing loss with good prevention routines:

  • Change up the types of headphones you’re using. That is, don’t use earbuds all day every day. Try utilizing over-the-ear headphones also.
  • Use hearing protection if you’re going to be subject to loud noises. Use earplugs, for example.
  • Getting your hearing checked by us regularly is a smart plan. We will be able to help you get tested and monitor the general health of your hearing.
  • When you’re not using your earbuds, minimize the amount of noise damage your ears are exposed to. This could mean paying additional attention to the sound of your surroundings or steering clear of overly loud situations.
  • When you’re using your devices, use volume-limiting apps.
  • Some headphones and earbuds come with noise-canceling technology, try to use those. With this function, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without needing to turn it up quite so loud.

Preventing hearing loss, particularly NIHL, can help you protect 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?

Well…should I just toss my earbuds in the trash? Well, no. Particularly not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little gizmos are expensive!

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds on a regular basis, you might want to consider varying your approach. You might not even realize that your hearing is being damaged by your earbuds. Your best defense, then, is knowing about the danger.

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.

If you think you may have damage due to 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.
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