What you need to know about earbuds and hearing loss

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Did you know that the simple act of listening to music through a pair of earbuds can lead to permanent hearing loss? While it doesn’t happen overnight, you may want to heed this advice the next time you use them.

What hearing specialists like me are most concerned about is chronic exposure to loud volume or noise through earbuds over time, because that's what can damage your ability to hear well in your 40s, 50s and beyond. 

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use earbuds, but you do need to use them wisely. To put it all in perspective, let’s start with decibels of sound. Sixty to 65 decibels is the sound of normal conversation. But when you mow the lawn, for example, you’re up to 95 – 105 decibels. When using earbuds, you should aim for around 80 decibels (volume slider at the midway point) for no more than one hour. Eighty decibels may not seem that loud, but keep in mind that earbuds sit inside of your ears, closer to the ear canal, so the sound is more amplified. If you consistently crank up the volume on your device higher than 80 decibels to block out background noise, you could be doing more damage than you realize.

There are current studies in Europe that have shown that 10 percent of people between the ages of 13 and 23 who listen to their devices through headphones or earbuds while commuting on public transit have been diagnosed with permanent hearing loss. 

Over time, chronic exposure to loud volume and sounds causes a loss of hair cells in the most sensitive part of the inner ear area, the cochlea. These tiny hair cells send sound messages to the brain and, when they are damaged, it can lead to permanent hearing loss. 

We’re born with one set of hair cells in our ears. Once they’re damaged, they can’t be healed.

A better way to use earbuds

The first thing the auditory system does is it adapts. If you turn up the volume, early on it will sound really loud to you, but over time, you'll adapt to it and, after a while, it won’t sound that loud. The same thing will happen if you turn down the volume. Your system will adapt to that lower volume level. Choosing the volume wisely is the best thing you can do to avoid hearing loss. 

If you go for a run and you like to listen to music, turning up a song or two is OK, but if you listen to a whole album or more than 60 minutes of music at a high volume, it could become a problem. It really comes down to time, so take listening breaks. Giving your ears a rest from the sound is the key to prevent hearing loss. 

Signs of hearing loss

  • difficulty hearing in noisy situations, like restaurants, malls, or crowded meeting rooms
  • you require frequent repetition
  • you have your TV or radio turned up to a high volume
  • ringing in your ears (tinnitus)

 What to do if you suspect you have hearing loss

If you have any of these signs, you should see a specialist for a hearing screening. If it’s an acute situation like being at a loud concert for several hours, a doctor might put a patient on steroids in some cases. But if the hearing loss is due to chronic exposure, then, unfortunately, a hearing aid might be the only option. 

The takeaway

You can opt for custom-molded earphones or download a volume control app, but the best way to avoid noise-induced hearing loss from earbuds is to turn down the sound and give your ears a chance to adapt to the new, lower volume setting. In the long run, you’ll be glad you did. 

Dr. Oliver Adunka is the director of Otology, Neurotology and Cranial Base Surgery at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and director of the Otology and Hearing Program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.