Headphones and earbuds are everywhere – but that doesn’t mean they’re safe for your ears. Using earbuds and headphones can cause damage to your hearing if you aren’t careful. Learn how to keep yourself safe.
Chances are you have a smartphone in your pocket, and a pair of headphones that connect it directly to your ears. Unfortunately, those same devices that make listening to music or talking on the phone so simple might also be damaging your ears.
According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the use of headphones and earbuds has led to a major increase in the prevalence of hearing loss in adolescents and young adults. It’s reasonable to assume the same is true for adults using the same devices as well. So what can you do to keep yourself safe from hearing loss caused by headphones or other audio devices?
HOW LOUD NOISE CAN DAMAGE HEARING
The key danger of headphones is volume – the fact that they can produce very loud levels of sound very close to your ear. This is dangerous for your hearing because loud noises, in general, are damaging to your ears.
When sound waves reach our ears, they cause the eardrum to vibrate. This vibration is transmitted to the inner ear through several small bones, where it reaches the cochlea. The cochlea is a fluid-filled chamber in your ear that contains many thousands of small “hairs.” When sound vibrations reach the cochlea, the fluid inside it vibrates and causes the hairs to move. Louder sounds cause stronger vibrations, which cause the hairs to move more.
When you listen to sounds that are too loud for too long, these hair cells lose their sensitivity to vibration. Many loud noises cause the cells to bend or fold over. This is what causes the sensation of “temporary hearing loss” after you are exposed to loud noises. The hair cells take time to recover from extreme vibrations caused by loud noise.
In some cases, however, the cells never recover. They may be too damaged to function normally any longer. This leads to lasting hearing loss. This type of noise-induced hearing damage is almost impossible to recover from. No cure exists for repairing a damaged inner ear.
THE ROLE OF HEADPHONES
Headphones cause damage to your ears the same way other loud noises do, resulting in what audiologists call “noise-induced hearing loss.” Over time the sounds from your headphones cause the hair cells in the cochlea to bend down too much or too severely. If they don’t get time to recover, the damage can be permanent.
However, headphones don’t have to be extremely loud to damage your ears. Even listening to headphones or earbuds at a moderate volume can damage your hearing over time. That’s because your ears are not just damaged by the loudness of a noise, but by the length of exposure as well. That’s the same reason going to a concert or using loud power tools can damage your ears as much as a much louder gunshot or explosion. The duration of the exposure matters just as much as the volume.
Data via cdc.gov
As you can see, louder noises cause hearing damage much faster than quieter ones, but quiet ones can still cause damage over time. For instance, a 90 decibel (dB) noise – about the same as a loud motorcycle approximately 30 feet away – causes hearing damage in under 3 hours. A sound of about 105 dB – similar to a gas lawnmower or other power tools – can damage your hearing in less than 5 minutes.
What about headphones? Unfortunately that question isn’t easy to answer because decibel ratings from headphones vary. The “loudness” of your headphones is based on the volume you’ve set your phone or device to as well as the type and make of headphone you use.
For instance, classic iPod earbuds at 100% volume on an iPhone can hit noise levels of 112dB for the wearer, leading to hearing damage in minutes. The same earbuds at 60% volume measure approximately 80 dB, which makes them safe to listen to for several hours.
You should note that decibels decrease with distance – the closer you are to the source of a sound, the louder it is. For this reason, many audiologists and hearing experts recommend over-the-ear headphones instead of in-ear models like earbuds. The extra distance between the speakers and the ear can significantly reduce the loudness of the audio and help prevent hearing damage.
HOW TO AVOID HEARING DAMAGE FROM HEADPHONES
Avoiding headphone-induced hearing damage isn’t too hard. It simply requires most people to break some habits with their headphone use.
TURN DOWN THE VOLUME
The single biggest change you can make to protect your hearing is to turn down the volume on your devices. Noise-induced hearing loss is caused primarily by exposure to very loud noise. Limiting your exposure can protect your ears.
USE NOISE-CANCELING HEADPHONES
Most people listen to headphones at a high volume to “drown out” other sounds. One good way to lower the volume on your devices and protect your ears is to use noise-canceling headphones. These headphones block out external sound, letting you enjoy your music or videos at a lower volume without distraction.
USE OVER-THE-EAR MODELS
As we mentioned above, audiologists and otologists frequently recommend using over-the-ear headphones instead of in-ear or earbud-style models. Over-the-ear headphones increase the distance between your eardrums and the speakers, lowering the chance for hearing loss.
LIMIT YOUR EXPOSURE
Along with turning down the volume, you can also protect your ears by reducing your listening time. One good rule of thumb is the “60-60 rule”: Don’t listen at any louder than 60% of max volume for any longer than 60 minutes at a time.
Unfortunately your ears may never heal completely if they are already damaged from headphone-related noise. That doesn’t mean you’ll never hear well again, though. A hearing aid from a licensed audiologist can restore hearing ability and make it easy for you to hear again.