The only thing you probably know about earbuds is that they are easy to wear and sound great. Earbuds are small and useful devices, as long as you use them at low volumes. But they are a pair of small speakers that you carry inside your ears. And if you play music at high volume so close to the eardrum, you could lose your hearing permanently.
How ear-buds damage your ears
Although it's hard to believe, earbuds can damage your hearing in the same way as a chainsaw or motorcycle. This may seem strange because the earbuds are actually tiny. But the damage depends exclusively on the volume.
The motors in chain saws and motorcycles generate approximately 100 decibels. In less than half an hour, that noise level can start to damage a person's ears. An MP3 player at 70% of its maximum volume generates approximately 85 decibels. If you turn up the volume and listen for long periods, you could be at serious risk of permanent hearing loss.
Hearing loss due to the use of earbuds is an example of a condition called "noise-induced hearing loss." This type of hearing loss is becoming a problem among children and adolescents.
How does noise cause hearing loss?
The ear comprises three parts that work together to process sounds: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. A portion of the inner ear called the "cochlea" contains small hair cells and then sends them to the brain. But loud noise can damage hair cells. When this happens, the cochlea cannot correctly send sound messages to the brain.
Unlike damage to other parts of the body, damage to the inner ear never heals. Over time, as more and more hair cells are damaged, your hearing will gradually get worse.
What to do
Noise-induced hearing loss due to the use of earbuds takes a while to appear. As it happens gradually, most people don't realize they have a problem until it is too late.
Signs of possible hearing loss include the following:
ringing, buzzing, or noise in the ears after hearing a loud noise
damping or distorting sounds
Call the doctor. Your doctor will be able to examine you and send you to see an audiologist. Your audiologist will most likely run a series of tests to determine how affected your hearing is.
Your audiologist can also answer any questions you have about wearing earplugs and about hearing protection.
Correct use of earbuds
Noise-induced hearing loss due to the use of earbuds is 100% preventable with moderate use.
You have probably heard that everything should be done in moderation. It is important not to overdo it, regardless of whether you are eating chocolate cake or wearing earbuds. The more cake you eat, the faster you will get fat. The louder the volume, the quicker you can lose your hearing.
So what does restraint mean when it comes to wearing earbuds? Doctors recommend using the 60% / 60 minute rule:
Listen to music, a movie, or a video game at a level that does not exceed 60% of the maximum volume.
Here's another trick you can use to determine if earbuds are at a safe volume: Ask those sitting near you if they can hear the music. If they listen to it, it means that you are damaging your hearing. Lower the volume until the people around you can no longer hear the music.
Hearing loss is not the only problem that earbuds can cause. Listening to music at a high volume can make you unaware of what is happening around you. This increases your chances of having an accident. For example, if you are running on a bike path, it will be challenging to hear a cyclist yelling "Watch out!" if music drowns other sounds.
Are there other options?
It might seem that every music player or phone comes with a pair of earbuds. After all, they are inexpensive to manufacture and easy to use.
What can you do? Turn to retro headphones. This is one of the reasons why they are back in fashion. Sometimes old school is better.
Most electronics stores have an entire section dedicated to headphones. Noise-canceling headphones are the best because they help block out other noises. This way, you don't have to turn up the music volume that much to hear it. Noise-canceling headphones can be helpful to keep you focused on study or homework, but they're not a good choice if you need to listen to the sounds around you.
Headphones that are placed over the ears can also damage hearing if used for too long or played too loud. But they are not as dangerous as earplugs: having the sound source in the ear canal can increase the sound volume by between 6 and 9 decibels, which is enough to cause serious problems.
Earbuds exist because many of us love music. So knowing the risks of earbuds (and other noise hazards) is helpful so you can take steps to be safe.