How Your Headphones and Earbuds Could Be Causing Your Hearing Loss

There is a lot of information out there about headphones and earbuds and whether or not they actually damage the ears. Everyone wants to know if it’s true that they cause hearing loss.

People tend to ask us audiologist questions such as:
  • How quickly does hearing damage from headphones or earbuds occur?
  • How loud is too loud?
  • Are some types of headphones less harmful than others?
In other words, people want to know what all the fuss is about, and just how far they can push the limits.
The fact is that headphones along with wired or wireless earbuds can cause a lot of damage to the ears, which may eventually lead to noise-induced, sensorineural hearing loss over the course of time.

Hearing loss statistics among young people

The truth is in the statistics. “You’ll ruin your hearing” is not just something we say to our teenagers to get them to take off their headphones so they’ll pay more attention to us. In fact, the rate of hearing loss among teenagers has risen as much as 30% since the 90s. Experts believe that the regular use of headphones – earbuds in particular – is to blame.
Here’s how headphones are contributing to hearing loss in people of all ages:

Hearing loss from headphones

By now most people are aware that exposure to loud noises can damage their ears, and that repeated exposure to such loud noises can inflict more and more damage as time goes on. However, most people associate hearing loss with the noise levels of a rock concert or gas-powered leaf blower– not necessarily the seemingly tame sounds delivered by a modern smartphone.
And although headphones may not expose your ears to the extreme sounds of power equipment or commercial-grade speaker systems, they’re not necessarily harmless. Headphones and earbuds can induce hearing loss by isolating loud noises and placing them directly beside your sensitive ear canals.

Fun doesn't mean harmless when it comes to hearing loss

The misconception that headphones aren’t capable of really damaging our hearing persists because some people tend to think that because they are choosing to listen to pleasurable sounds such as music, the sound can’t possibly be harmful. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The anatomy of the inner ear is delicate and can be damaged by any directed sounds that are too loud. Whether you’re listening to the loud revving of a chainsaw engine or The Beatles on max volume, sound is sound– and it can prove harmful.

Types of headphones

There are two main types of headphones: over-the-ear headphones and earbuds. The over-the-ear headphone style first became popular when Sony introduced them with their Walkman portable players. It wasn’t until Apple released the iPod in the early 2000s that earbuds became widely used, overtaking the popularity of the traditional style.

The surprising-but-true fact about headphones vs. earbuds

Of the two varieties of headphones, earbuds often do the most damage because of their ability to place sound waves close to the delicate hairs of the inner ear. Many earbud models are unable to cancel out exterior sounds like the hum of a bus, the crying of a baby on an airplane, or a colleague yammering on the phone a cubicle away, which causes the earbud wearer to turn up the volume of their device to compensate. And this can become a harmful habit.

How much noise from headphones is too much?

When you’re cranking the volume on your smartphone with your headphones plugged in, does your device ever warn you not to exceed a certain point? Listen to your phone! After all, it’s called a “smartphone” for a reason. Most devices are capable of reaching a maximum of 120 decibels, which is well beyond the 85 decibels that can cause minor damage.

Reducing your risk of hearing loss caused by headphones

The good news is, there are ways to lessen the impact of headphones. The main strategy is to stay within the recommended guidelines. Adhere to the 60/60 rule audiologists recommend, which states that you should only listen to your music through your headphones at a maximum of 60 percent volume for no longer than 60 minutes per day.
If limiting your use of headphones is not an option, at least opt for headphones that sit over the ear rather than earbuds, as this will likely reduce the level at which you play your music. Most high-quality, over-the-ear models encompass the entire outer ear with comfortable foam, making them both comfortable and effective. But be sure to use caution with these if you are running or cycling on the roads, as you won’t be able to hear traffic cues around you.

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