Do earbuds and headphones cause hearing loss?

Little ear buds spell big trouble for hearing health

Ear buds, ear phones, headphones, Bluetooth® devices—they're everywhere today—plugged into mobile phones, iPods®, MP3 players, computers, tablets, and more.

They're used by kids, teens and adults of all ages; and provide private listening in schools, gyms, at home, on the workplace—just about everywhere people spend time.

Ear buds are by far the most popular choice for listening—they're tiny and light, fit into a pocket, and cost next to nothing. The problem is, these little portable speakers are causing hearing damage at an alarming rate. In fact, studies show that 1 in 5 American teenagers already suffers from hearing loss.

What makes this even more disturbing is that hearing loss is not reversible. And, the longer it goes unrecognized and untreated, the faster it progresses.

Volume is the culprit

Noise–induced hearing loss is generally caused by two types of noise: sudden, earsplitting bursts, such as gunfire or fireworks; or ongoing exposure, such as factory noise or loud music listened to over time.
Ear buds are primarily used to listen to music, and little thought is given to the amount of time worn, or at what level of volume. It's not unusual for people to listen to music or the radio at high volumes for several hours per day.

Just how do ear buds damage hearing?

The ear buds commonly used with iPod® or MP3 players sit within the ear canal. This puts the audio signal close to your inner ear the equivalent of boosting it by as much as nine decibels. Nine decibels is substantial, when you consider that anything over 85 decibels can cause hearing damage. It's like going from the sound of a dinner bell to the sound of a lawn mower. And, if the ear buds don't make a tight seal, background noise seeps in causing the wearer to raise the volume even more.

Further, newer iPod and MP3 devices have more memory and better battery life, allowing people to listen longer, without interruption.
Even moderately high volume can cause hearing loss if listened to for too long. For example, listening to sound at ninety decibels for three hours can be as damaging as hearing something at 155 decibels (like a jet taking off) for thirty seconds.

Tricks to try

Here are some suggestions to protect your hearing when enjoying a personal listening device:


Wear earmuff—style headphones. Your best bet is “noise-cancelling” headphones, which reduce or eliminate background noise. This lessens the need to crank the volume above 50 percent. You can listen to music at a softer volume, for a longer time.

Follow the 60/60 rule when wearing ear buds. Keep your volume below 60%, and limit your listening to under 60 minutes per day.


Buy the newer ear buds that offer a tighter fit to block out more background noise, allowing you to listen at a lower volume.


Invest in “custom” ear buds made according to an impression taken of your ear canal. These block out the most noise, letting you listen at very low levels. They also provide the best sound quality.


Educate children and teenagers. Most have no idea that hearing doesn't come back once it's gone.


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