Louisville Family Audiology - Louisville, KY

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever lost your earbuds? (Or, maybe, unintentionally left them in the pocket of a sweatshirt that went through the laundry?) Suddenly, your morning jog is so much more boring. Your commute or train ride is dreary and dull. And your virtual meetings are suffering from bad sound quality.

The old saying “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” applies here.

So you’re so happy when you finally get a working set of earbuds. The world is suddenly vibrant again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear sound. Earbuds are everywhere right now, and people use them for a lot more than simply listening to their favorite tunes (though, naturally, they do that too).

But, regrettably, earbuds can present some considerable risks to your ears because so many people are using them for so many listening tasks. If you’re wearing these devices all day every day, you might be putting your hearing in jeopardy!

Why earbuds are unique

In the past, you would require cumbersome, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-quality listening experience. That’s not always the case now. Incredible sound quality can be created in a very small space with contemporary earbuds. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone manufacturers popularized these little devices by offering a pair with every new smartphone purchase (At present, you don’t find that as much).

In part because these sophisticated earbuds (with microphones, even) were so readily available, 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 main ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).

It’s that mixture of convenience, portability, and dependability that makes earbuds useful in a large number of contexts. Lots of individuals use them pretty much all of the time consequently. And that’s become a bit of an issue.

It’s all vibrations

Here’s the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all basically the same thing. They’re just air molecules being vibrated by waves of pressure. It’s your brain that does all the work of interpreting those vibrations, grouping one type of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.

Your inner ear is the mediator for this process. There are tiny hairs along your ear that vibrate when exposed to sound. These are not large vibrations, they’re very small. These vibrations are recognized by your inner ear. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they are transformed into electrical signals by a nerve in your ear.

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

The dangers of earbud use

The risk of hearing damage is prevalent because of the appeal of earbuds. According to one study, over 1 billion young individuals are at risk of developing hearing loss across the globe.

Using earbuds can increase your danger of:

  • Needing to use a hearing aid in order to communicate with friends and loved ones.
  • Advancing deafness due to sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Experiencing sensorineural hearing loss with repeated exposure.
  • Hearing loss contributing to cognitive decline and social isolation.

There’s some evidence to suggest that using earbuds may 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 think this is the case while others still aren’t convinced.

Besides, what’s more significant is the volume, and any pair of headphones is capable of delivering dangerous levels of sound.

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 show for 24 episodes in a row. Well… that would help. But it may not be the complete answer.

This is because how long you listen is as crucial as how loud it is. Modest volume for five hours can be equally as harmful as top volume for five minutes.

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

  • As a basic rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • If your ears start to experience pain or ringing, immediately quit listening.
  • Some smart devices let you reduce the max volume so you won’t even need to think about it.
  • Make use of the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more time? Reduce the volume.)
  • Give yourself plenty of breaks. It’s best to take regular and extended breaks.
  • Enable volume warnings on your device. These warnings can alert you when your listening volume goes a little too high. Once you hear this alert, it’s your job to lower the volume.

Earbuds specifically, and headphones generally, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (typically) develop all of a sudden; it occurs gradually and over time. Which means, you might not even recognize it happening, at least, not until it’s too late.

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

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 too much exposure to loud sound, they can never be restored.

The damage is barely noticeable, especially in the early stages, and progresses gradually over time. That can make NIHL difficult to recognize. It might be getting gradually worse, in the meantime, you think it’s perfectly fine.

Sadly, NIHL can’t be cured or reversed. Still, there are treatments created to offset and minimize some of the most significant impacts of sensorineural hearing loss (the most popular of such treatments is a hearing aid). These treatments, however, can’t reverse the damage that’s been done.

So the best plan is prevention

That’s why so many hearing specialists place a considerable emphasis on prevention. Here are a few ways to keep listening to your earbuds while decreasing your risk of hearing loss with good prevention routines:

  • If you do need to go into an overly loud setting, utilize ear protection. Ear plugs, for instance, work remarkably well.
  • When you’re not wearing your earbuds, minimize the amount of noise damage your ears are subjected to. Avoid excessively loud settings whenever possible.
  • Getting your hearing checked by us regularly is a good plan. We will help identify the overall health of your hearing by having you screened.
  • Utilize earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling technology. With this feature, you will be capable of hearing your media more clearly without needing to turn it up quite as loud.
  • When you’re listening to your devices, use volume-limiting apps.
  • Switch up the types of headphones you’re using. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other kinds of headphones now and then. Try utilizing over-the-ear headphones as well.

Preventing hearing loss, particularly NIHL, can help you preserve your sense of hearing for years longer. And, if you do end 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 trash? Well, no. Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can get expensive.

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds on a regular basis, you might want to consider altering your strategy. These earbuds may be harming your hearing and you may not even realize it. Your best defense, then, is being aware of the danger.

Step one is to moderate the volume and duration of your listening. Step two is to consult 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!

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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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