Dr. Cynthia L. Ellison, Au.D
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Most of us own earbuds or headphones, maybe even more than one pair! They have become a common way we listen to music, podcasts, audiobooks and more. We are using earbuds now more than ever (at work, during our commute, while exercising, when chatting on the phone etc.) and though they are meant to be convenient, they could be potentially harmful to your hearing. A major cause of hearing loss is exposure to loud noise which could be coming from your earbuds! To understand how earbud use could be potentially harmful, it is important to be aware of the impact of noise on hearing and what you can do to protect your hearing health. 

Understanding How We Hear

The auditory system, which is how our sense of hearing works, is complex and includes various parts including the ears and brain. This process requires our ears to absorb and process sound which happens through the following parts: 

 

  • Outer Ear: is the most visible part of the ear, the ear canal, and the ear drum which divides the outer ear from the middle ear. 
  • Middle Ear: includes three tiny bones that are connected (referred to as ossicles), and the eustachian tube responsible for maintaining pressure within the ear. 
  • Inner Ear: consists of the cochlea, filled with hair cells and fluid, as well as the nerve pathways. 

 

The outer ear absorbs sound from the environment which travels down the ear canal and strikes the eardrum. This causes the eardrum and the ossicles to vibrate which push the soundwaves further into the inner ear; activating the cochlea. The movement of the hair cells and fluid work to help translate the soundwaves into electrical signals which the auditory nerve sends to the brain. This enables the brain to register and make meaning of the sound we hear. 

Impact of Noise on Hearing

This process can be disrupted by a variety of factors including: existing medical conditions, genetic history, and environmental exposure to loud noise. Loud noise can specifically damage the inner ear, causing permanent hearing loss. The louder the sound waves, the more intense the vibrations are in the inner ear. Loud sound waves can overwork the hair cells in the cochlea, causing them to lose sensitivity. These tiny hair cells need time to rejuvenate but the more sound (at high volumes) one absorbs, the more these hair cells are activated. Because these hair cells (unlike other types of cells) do not regenerate, any damage is permanent, resulting in hearing loss. 

When is Earbud Use Harmful?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), globally,

  • Nearly 1.1 billion teens and young adults are at risk of hearing loss caused by absorbing unsafe levels of noise from electronic devices. 
  • For people between the ages of 12-35, nearly 50% are exposed to unsafe levels of sound from devices 

WHO warns that exposure to sound above 85dB for 8 hours or 100dB for 15 minutes is dangerous. Noise is measured in units referred to as decibels (dB): 

  • Near complete silence: 0dB
  • Typical conversation: 50dB
  • Vacuum: 70dB
  • Fireworks: 145dB

Noise beyond 85 dB can be potentially harmful to our hearing. Concerts, sport arenas, and operating a lawnmower are activities that expose us to sound above 85dB. Depending on the volume you set, using earbuds could also mean you are absorbing sound that is too loud. Not only can earbuds project loud sound, but because they are in your ear, their sound is even closer to the parts in the ear responsible for our hearing. To reduce your risk of damaging your hearing, it is important to take protective measures!

Tips to Protect Your Hearing

Damage from earbud use is totally preventable! There are safety measures you can practice that reduce your risk of damaging your hearing including: 

 

  • Be aware of volume: make sure you are playing sound at safe levels; you can use various apps to measure sound to make sure it is not above 85dB
  • Take listening breaks: it is important that your ears have time to rest and recover from constantly absorbing and processing sound 
  • Invest in noise cancellation features: which works to reduce background noise, preventing you from having to increase the volume while in louder settings 

 

Lastly, have your hearing assessed to establish your hearing ability in both ears. By practicing a few helpful tips, you can protect and maintain your hearing health! If you have questions about your hearing abilities or want to schedule a hearing test, contact us today!