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The Hidden Dangers of Earbuds for Teenagers and Adults

Airpods and other wireless earbuds are everywhere. Chances are, you’re wearing them right now, or carry them in your pockets. And whilst they may look great, they also put your hearing at risk. We’re discussing the reasons why earbuds and headphones can be bad for your hearing and give you a few tips on how to keep yourself safe and prevent hearing loss.

Most of us like to listen to music or podcasts at the gym or on our way to work or school. Thanks to recent technological progress, we’re now able to listen to our favourite tunes wherever we go. Earbuds make it all possible. 

These tiny devices are often barely noticeable. Unfortunately, style seems to win over practicality: However good they look, earbuds offer zero noise isolation. The natural response of anyone trying to overpower the chitchat of a noisy couple on the train is to compensate by turning up the volume. A reaction with terrible side effects on our hearing.

We’re able to enjoy our music to the fullest and don’t have to be worried that those around us don’t share our taste in music. We can turn it up as much as we please – or so we think. With greater awareness of hearing-health in recent years, questions surrounding the safety of earbuds have emerged:

We know we like earbuds, but are they healthy for us?  Is the music – or noise in some people’s opinion – hurting our ears and causing hearing loss?

man with airports

We have the answers to all of your questions. In today’s post on the hidden dangers of earbuds, we’ll cover: 

  • How sound can damage your hearing
  • When is a sound too loud for your ears
  • Knowing when your earbuds are too loud 
  • The first signs of a hearing loss
  • Preventing damage to your hearing caused by earbuds

Please note, we’re not criticising headphones in themselves. You could listen to music all day at a low-to-middle volume without having to worry about your health. It’ll only become problematic when you find yourself listening to loud volumes for extended time periods.

How sound can damage your hearing

But how do you hear music in the first place? Let’s have a look at how your hearing works, and how it can get damaged through loud, extended noise exposure.

Essentially, sound is vibration – vibration that travels through the outer ear and your ear canal, to your middle ear system, the eardrum and bones and muscles which move your eardrum. It then pushes through the cochlear which is a fluid-filled chamber that houses thousands of hair cells. When the vibration arrives at the cochlear, the fluid inside the chamber moves the hair cells in our inner ear. Loud sounds cause a large rippling effect, moving the hairs to a greater degree. 

When you listen to sound for an extended period, or at a loud level, these hairs can fold over. Which is how listening to loud noise or music can cause temporary hearing loss. Sometimes these tiny hairs recover and stand upright again after some time. Many people have experienced temporary hearing loss after concerts or being exposed to loud noise at work.

In some cases though, with extreme impulse noise or sustained noise, these hair cells are more permanently damaged and fail to recover with time. A louder sound and more vigorous movement of the hair cells can result in permanent hearing loss, known as a sensorineural hearing loss

This type of hearing loss is one that you cannot recover from. It can lead to significant difficulties in communicating with others and impact your enjoyment of recreational activities, such as listening to music. In essence, the very thing you love so much could cause you hearing loss. 

wireless headphones

When is a sound too loud for your ears

In order to determine when a sound from your earbuds is dangerous, you need to understand how it is measured. Sound is typically measured in decibels (dBA). A decibel scale is quite unique because of our range of hearing as humans. We can perceive very small sounds like a whisper or extremely loud sounds like that of a jet engine. 

As a result, the decibel scale is logarithmic to capture such a large range. But essentially, the larger the number, the louder the noise. Let’s look at some common sound examples from your day-to-day listening environment and their decibel ratings.

An aircraft can be 130 dBA loud, whilst an iPod reaches its maximum volume at 100 dBA. A motorcycle can reach 90dBA, a conversation has usually a volume of 60 dBA. Rustling leaves clock in at 10dBA. As you see, there is a great range of decibel readings in your environment. 

You’ll note that the iPod rates rather high up on the decibel scale. You’ll also know from experience, that sound does diminish with distance. Listening to any of these more extreme noises could be quite upsetting or painful in some circumstances. Especially if you’re up close to the sound source. 

We wouldn’t stand close to a jet engine taking off at 130 dBA, so why do we put earbuds into our ear and listen to music at maximum volume – in some cases at 100dBA?

The answer lies in your enjoyment of the sound and the convenience of newer technologies of listening. We often listen to music through earbuds for an extended period, maybe when we’re travelling, exercising, studying or just relaxing. 

Any noise over 85dBA can be harmful and cause permanent hearing loss, especially if the noise is sustained over a prolonged period of time. The longer you’re around loud noise or music, the more damage you could end up doing to your ears.

girl with headphone_2

How can you tell when your earbuds are too loud 

Many of us look at the volume scale when we turn up the music. Not all volume scales are the same though, and some earbuds have a more extreme maximum than others. So when you’re trying to drown out ambient noise to better enjoy your music, it can be tricky to determine if you’re reaching a level that will damage your hearing. Firstly, you should know that:

A good way to determine if the music is too loud and to prevent permanent hearing loss is checking if you can hear someone at an arm’s length away from you. If they don’t have to shout for you to understand them while you’re playing your music through your earbuds, you’re good. 

Alternatively, you can hold your earbuds at arm’s length and see if you can still hear any music. If you do, you should definitely lower the volume. By doing so you may avoid permanent hearing loss. 

airports

The first signs of a hearing loss

Noise-induced hearing loss is usually gradual. While impulse sounds are known to cause hearing loss, the more common occurrence relates to someone’s prolonged exposure.  It can be difficult for a person to tell they have a hearing loss, as a result, because often people become very accustomed to what they hear – or more aptly, what they don’t hear.  

Worried about hearing loss? Look out for the following signs:

  • You find that people seem to mumble when they talk to you
  • You often have to ask people to repeat themselves
  • You get tired of trying to understand what people are saying
  • You have difficulty hearing when there is a lot of background noise
  • You need the TV volume to be louder than others
  • You have a constant ringing in your ears

People with a noise-induced hearing loss often comment about lack of clarity with speech, especially in the presence of noise. They can comment on experiencing tinnitus, a ringing, buzzing or humming sound in the ears, or missing jokes and conversation if someone isn’t speaking face to face with them.

girl with headphone

Plan of action: Avoiding damage from headphones

Earbuds have a huge potential to cause hearing loss: Temporary hearing loss for some, or a more significant, sensorineural hearing loss for others. But hearing damage is almost always preventable. 

Here is what you can do to prevent damage to your hearing:

  • Turn down the volume
  • Use noise-cancelling headphones
  • Use over-the-ear models
  • Limit your exposure time 

The 60-60 rule is a preventative method you may use to protect your ears from the dangers of earbuds: Listen to music at 60 per cent of the maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes per day. 

Another option is moving away from earbuds to a noise-cancelling headphone instead. While a little bulkier, they don’t concentrate the sound in your ear canals as much, reducing the level of noise reaching our eardrum and limiting the likelihood of hearing loss. 

They also block extraneous noise and reduce the need to increase the volume to combat background noise. A common reason for turning up the volume. In moderating our use of earbuds and limiting overall noise-exposure, we can minimise the risk of suffering from noise-induced hearing loss. 

headphone

It may be time for a hearing test

If you feel as though you already have done damage to your ears, and are worried about suffering from hearing loss, it’s best to arrange a hearing assessment with your Audiologist. They will be able to assess your level of hearing loss and assist you with a tailor-made solution.  

In some cases, this can involve having a hearing aid fitted. But don’t worry, nowadays hearing aids are very discreet pieces of technology. Some of which even allow you to connect them to your smartphone and play music directly through your hearing aid, at healthy volume levels, of course. 

However, prevention is always better than cure. With a more measured use of earbuds, you can work towards maintaining your hearing health in the years to come. Paying close attention to how long you listen to music and at what volume, or switching to noise-cancelling headphones, are great steps in the right direction.

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