It seems like earbuds are just about everywhere we look these days, and most of us don’t think twice about spending at least part of each day with a pair firmly lodged in our ears. But maybe it’s time to rethink our earbud obsession. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently issued a warning that “1.1 billion young people are at risk of hearing loss because of personal audio devices, such as smartphones.” Most personal audio devices reach a maximum volume of 115 decibels, which can permanently damage hearing in as little as eight minutes.
Can Earbuds be Safe?
Earbuds are safe—when we use safe listening practices. But unfortunately, most of us don’t use safe listening practices. Earbuds are basically tiny versions of full-size speakers that funnel music and sound directly into the ear canal. At full volume, handheld electronic devices are capable of making noises loud enough that you might as well be at a live rock concert. Permanent hearing loss can occur within minutes, and once the damage is done, it’s irreversible.
How Earbuds Damage Hearing
Despite their small size, earbuds can harm hearing the same way, and to the same extent, as motorcycles and chainsaws. It’s all about the volume. Motorcycles and chainsaws, both of which are notorious for their dangerous noise levels, can reach 100 decibels, which can damage hearing within half an hour. An mp3 player turned up to just 70% of its volume is already approaching 85 decibels of sound, and earbuds blast all that noise directly into the ears. Hearing loss caused by earbuds is an example of noise-induced hearing loss or NIHL. Studies show hearing loss in teens is 30% more common than it was in the 1980s, and many experts attribute this rise to the widespread use of earbuds.
How Noise Damages Hearing
The ear consists of three parts that, together, process sound: the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. The cochlea in the inner ear contains microscopic hair cells, called cilia, that help the brain receive sound messages. However, loud noises easily damage these delicate hair cells, and once they are damaged, the cochlea can no longer relay sound messages to the brain. As more cilia are damaged, hearing loss increases. These cells in the inner ear never regenerate, so any damage they receive is permanent.
Signs of Hearing Loss
Hearing loss caused by noise is gradual, so, unfortunately, most people don’t realize they have a problem until it is too late. A few early warning signs include roaring, ringing, or buzzing in the ears after hearing a loud noise. Regular sounds might also become increasingly muffled or distorted.
Medical Diagnosis of Hearing Loss
A doctor can begin the diagnosis for a person who thinks they may be developing hearing loss. After an initial exam, the doctor might refer her patient to an audiologist, who will administer a series of tests to find out the degree to which one’s hearing has been damaged. An audiologist can also offer advice on the safe use of earbuds to prevent further hearing loss.
Avoiding Hearing Damage from Earbuds
The good news is, that noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable for people who use their earbuds safely. Just follow the 60%/60 minute rule: never listen at more than 60% volume, and limit the amount of time you spend listening with earbuds to 60 minutes at a time.
Determining the Right Volume
A good way to determine whether the sound coming from earbuds is loud enough to damage hearing is to ask a person sitting nearby if they can hear the music. If they can, this probably indicates the volume is turned up too high, and hearing damage could develop.
Other Earbud Dangers
Hearing damage is not the only risk earbuds pose. Listening to music at high volumes means one is less aware of the world around him. This increases the risk of accidents. It is important to stay alert to surrounding while listening to music while walking, jogging, or cycling, and keeping the volume at a safe level can also help ensure one can still hear ambient sounds.
Alternatives to Earbuds
Earbuds are so ubiquitous these days that they can seem like the only option. However, “old-fashioned” over-the-ear headphones are making a comeback, and for good reason—they are safer for your hearing. Most electronic stores carry stylish over-ear headphones. Noise-canceling options, while less safe for walking outside, can also prevent the need to increase the sound to unsafe levels and can reduce distractions and increase productivity.
Over-Ear Headphones vs. Earbuds
While headphones that go over the ears can certainly damage hearing at high volumes or for long periods, they aren’t as much of a risk to your hearing as earbuds are. Earbuds channel sound directly inside the ear canal, which increases the volume by six to nine decibels. This is enough to damage your hearing.