How Earbuds Could Damage Your Hearing
Learn how earbuds can cause hearing loss and how you can take action to safeguard your ears today.
Whether you’re ready to take in all the sounds of that next high-action superhero movie or want to vibe to some good music, chances are that you’re reaching over for your favorite pair of earbuds. After all, there’s nothing more convenient than enjoying the high-quality sound and privacy that it provides. If you’re in a quiet library, you don’t have to worry about those pointed looks that people will give you as soon as you blast that heavy metal. If you’re at home, you won’t have to shudder about the glances that your parents give you when you are near that audibly racy part of your comfort movie.
You’re certainly not the only one taking in all the benefits of earbuds. These days, nearly everyone owns their own pair of Airpods, Samsung Galaxy Buds, or regular wire earbuds. They’ve become such a huge part of modern life that we almost can’t seem to go without them now that we’re all hooked up to our phones and laptops.
In fact, I’d recently bought my 12-year-old daughter her first pair of Airpods. Naturally, her main talking point was about how all her friends had already bought them, followed by a “Please!” However, it wasn’t without a huge reluctance and hesitancy that I followed through with the purchase. Why so?
It revolves around the issue of ear damage and hearing loss. As an ENT nurse, I’ve had to deal with a constant number of patients that have suffered from a lack of sudden hearing without an inkling as to why. The most common factor? Prevalent earbud use.
However, this doesn’t mean all earbud use is dangerous, nor should you forgo using the little devices altogether. Today at OhMyEar, we’ll take a close look at hearing loss and how earbuds could damage your hearing if used improperly.
What is hearing loss?
“Can you say that again?
Ever find yourself saying these phrases so many times that you have to profusely apologize? That might be the clue you need to look into hearing loss.
The causes are wide in their range, but improper earbud use contributes a lot to the table. According to a 2011 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the use of earbuds and headphones has led to a major increase in the prevalence of hearing loss in adolescents and young adults.
This might initially seem like a surprise to you. After all, it’s not common for a lot of patients to believe that hearing loss can emerge from an environment unlike a high energy rock concert with loud speakers. Earbuds are often so small that their size seemingly renders them harmless — and they mostly are, if used in the right way.
To really understand why earbuds could damage your hearing, it’s important to understand some of the ways that your body works. In particular, we’ll focus on your ears so that you’ll never take proper hearing for granted again.
When you hear the word ‘cochlea,’ what first comes to your mind? If you have a puzzled expression on your face, then think of a cute snail shell that’s nestled snugly in your inner ear. Hence, the cochlea!
Whenever you ‘hear’ things, your ears are actually receiving sound waves that cause your eardrum to vibrate. These tiny vibrations then travel through your inner ear through a bunch of small bones, where it then hits the cochlea. This snail shell is a chamber filled with fluid that contains a bunch of microscopic hairs. Once the sound reaches there, those hairs will begin to move around as well! The louder the sound, the stronger the movements.
However, there comes a point when the sounds become so loud that they lead to the destruction of these hair cells. We’re all initially born with about 16,000 of these precious cells in our cochlea. However, it’s known that up to 30% to 50% of these cells can be damaged before any hearing changes can be measured by a test. And sadly, there’s little that can be done to revive these often-permanent damages over a long period of exposure to sounds that are too loud for too long.
Earbuds heavily contribute to this damage by a process called “noise-induced hearing loss.” They don’t even have to be cranked at a massively loud volume to level some type of damage. Even a moderate level can do it alone if you’re exposed for quite a long time. In all cases, the volume of any sound matters just as much as its duration. For example, even if you’re about 30 feet away from a loud motorcycle rumbling at just 90 decibels, you’ll experience hearing damage in less than 3 hours.
For you iPhone users out there, your device can reach a maximum of 102 decibels, which is about as loud as a leaf blower. While your music may sound absolutely rocking at that level, your ears certainly won’t thank you years down the road. Instead, a 70% volume at 82 decibels is much safer for 8 hours of usage. Crank that up to 89 decibels and suddenly, your earbuds would only be safe for a mere 90 minutes.
However, it isn’t just volume that matters when it comes to earbud-related hearing loss. It can often have a lot to do with the fit of the earbud and the small silicone pieces that come with the packaging when you buy it. You should definitely find the piece that feels most comfortable in your ear. Yet, it’s not uncommon for people to lose these small pieces and resort to fits that aren’t the most comfortable but would make do.
What ends up happening is that because of consistent shoving and pushing, far too many patients come into the clinic because the pieces get stuck to their ear canal. Most of the time, it’s an easy fix with some gentle suction. In most cases, these pieces go too far into the ear canal to remove comfortably while awake.
What does it feel like and what are the symptoms?
Because hearing loss isn’t visible like most other conditions, you might not spot it noticeably at first. However, subtle signs can begin to show themselves overtime, which will then worsen if repeatedly ignored.
Treatment and when to see a doctor
Now that you’re more familiar with the damages that loud and persistent earbud use can cause, here are some steps you can take today to reduce any future problems:
If you’re in a busy environment, you might have turned up the volume on high to drown out the outside noises. Instead of doing this ear-damaging practice, noise-canceling headphones can accomplish the same effect without forcing you to turn it up.
I recommend using headphones rather than earbuds for some high-quality sound that doesn’t blast right next to your ear canal. The distance between the headphones and your inner ear is a little bit wider than before, but it can make all the difference.
You know that you should turn down the volume, but by how much? A good rule of thumb is to have your volume high enough for you to be able to hear, but low enough so that no one else can hear. Along with volume control, you should also be mindful of how long you choose to listen. The rule of thumb here is to follow the “60-60” rule: Don’t listen at any louder than 60% of max volume for any longer than 60 minutes at a time.
These preventative measures are always great to keep in mind as you continually enjoy your own private moment of audio with earbuds. However, if you believe that some damage has already occurred, it’s best to go straight to a doctor immediately. They’ll be able to run several hearing tests, inspect for any possible ear infections, and refer you to a specialist or give you a hearing aid or cochlear implant.
At the end of the day, you probably know now that your earbuds aren’t nearly as harmless as they seem. Like the classic proverb, too much of anything, even good things can become bad if they are excessive. Earbuds certainly aren’t an exception but can be enjoyed to the fullest with proper caution and care. As you pay attention to your own body’s health, we here at OhMyEar are always there to help you along with all your ear-related needs so that you can enjoy the gift of hearing to the fullest.