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Can Headphones and Earbuds Actually Damage your Hearing?

Yes, the answer is yes. Headphones, as well as earbuds, do end up damaging our hearing, especially because of exposure and volume intensity. By using theses devices frequently, we slowly but surely are permanently hurting one of our most precious vital sense. Headphones and earbuds are now so integrated in our lives that we don’t even think about their downside before using them. Either we use them for music, podcasts, and even phone calls, we are so connected, we end up barely giving our ears a break. And the problem is – our ears do need a break sometimes! As much apocalyptic as it might sound, if we don’t change our ‘’hearing habits’’, we are most likely to seriously – and in many cases – permanently damage our hearing. Fortunately, a few ways exist to avoid hearing damage from headphones and earbuds. The first key point being volume.

1. Turn down the volume

phone, headphones, and coffee with foam art
Juja Han on Unsplash

The best way to protect our hearing is to turn down the volume on our devices. According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the biggest cause in adolescents and young adults’ loss of hearing is the major increase of headphones and earbuds daily use. The fact that headphones and earphones are both capable of producing very loud levels of sound, very close to our ears, makes us even more vulnerable. Very close exposition makes loud noises even more dangerous for our hearing. 

Just a quick explanation of why sounds, especially loud and close ones, are damaging to our ears. When any type of sound wave reaches our ears, our eardrum vibrates. That vibration gets transmitted to the inner ear, going through several small bones, and eventually reaching the cochlea. Essentially, the cochlea is a fluid-filled chamber that contains a few thousands small hair cells. When sound vibrations, after going through all the ear process, reach the cochlea, the inside fluid vibrates, moving the small hair. Stronger sounds cause bigger vibrations, and bigger vibrations increase the hair cells movement. 

The problem being, when noises are too loud, our hair cells end up losing their sensitivity to vibration by bending or folding over. That phenomenon can be felt as a ‘’temporary hearing loss’’. Think about when going out the dance floor or leaving a concert auditorium – that feeling! Hair cells take time to recover when temporarily damaged, and when too badly injured to function normally, they might never recover, leading to a lasting hearing loss. So far, no cure exists for repairing a damaged inner ear, therefore, we must be extremely careful. 

Headphones and earbuds essentially can damage our ears the same way other loud noises do. However, the volume doesn’t have to be extremely loud to damage our hearing. Even using moderate volume intensity, headphones and earbuds are harmful to our hearing. In fact, exposure duration matters just as much as the volume.

2. Limit your exposure

Woman Standing In Hallway While Holding Book
Anastasiya Gepp / Pexels

Our hearing doesn’t get disturbed solely by the loudness of a noise, but by the length of exposure as well. One thing to note is that decibels decrease with distance. Therefore, the closer you are to the source of a sound, the louder it feels to your ear. Hence, headphones and earbuds can be significantly damaging to our hearing, simply by the proximity of the sound. With the sound going through our inner ear without distance to diminish the decibels’ intensity, our hearing becomes consequently very susceptible to damage.

That’s why most audiologists tend to recommend over-the-ear headphones instead of in-ear models like earbuds to give an extra distance between the speakers and the ear. However, this doesn’t mean that headphones are less damaging than earbuds. Both, when exposed to for a while, end up injuring our hearing over time.

One good rule of thumb is called the “60-60 rule”. Can’t listen at any louder than 60% of the maximum capacity volume, for any longer than 60 minutes at a time. Really, that rule isn’t too demanding nor too hard. It only requires us to break some habits and build up new ones. Some people listen to headphones or earbuds at a high volume in order to drown out other sounds. A good way to avoid ruining your hearing is to use noise-canceling headphones that block out external sounds, requiring a lower volume for better hearing. 

All in all, hearing loss is not just around the corner, but we still have to be careful in order to maintain healthy ears. Plus, unplugging ourselves from our technology can make us more sociable, help us better enjoy our surroundings, while, nonetheless, keeping our hearing 100% functional!



Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Fourth-year journalism student at UOttawa & La Cité, Rebecca is Senior Editor for the HCuO chapter—entering her fourth consecutive year with the team.
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