Earbuds have become an essential item. Whether it is listening to music, a podcast, or talking on the phone; earbuds are a common way we can conveniently listen to audio. While these portable items are easy to use and allow us to listen and have our hands free, they can be risky for hearing health. Earbuds are actually a source of loud noise exposure, one of the most common causes of hearing loss. Earbuds can reach dangerously high volume levels which can then irreparably damage hearing health. Understanding this risk and practicing ways to protect your hearing can prevent you from experiencing hearing loss.
Understanding Noise Induced Hearing Loss
One time or regular exposure to loud noise can permanently damage the auditory system – the sensory system for hearing. Loud noise can damage the sensory cells in the inner ear which play an integral role in how sound is processed. There are thousands of sensory cells in each ear which convert incoming sound waves into electrical signals. These signals then get sent to the brain where they are further processed, including assigned meaning which allows us to understand what we hear.
Loud noise can weaken and desensitize sensory cells which reduces their capacity to effectively and efficiently process soundwaves. This results in the brain receiving less auditory information and having to search for sound signals to understand speech as well as sound. Unlike other types of cells we have, sensory cells in the inner ear do not regenerate. There are also no medical treatments or interventions that can repair these cells which means that the damage caused by loud noise is permanent. This causes chronic noise induced hearing loss.
Impact of Earbud Use on Hearing Health
Sound is measured in decibels (dB) and noise above 85dB is considered potentially hazardous for hearing health. This is equivalent to city traffic, a busy restaurant during peak hours, and a hair dryer. According to experts, the maximum threshold for safe listening is 8 hours at 85dB. Exposure time to noise above 85dB should be drastically reduced – by half for every 3 decibel increase.
Earbuds are items that are used throughout the day, while commuting or running errands. They’ve become a common way people are exposed to excessive noise. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 1 billion people globally are at high risk of developing noise induced hearing loss from loud noise exposure Earbuds can deliver dangerously high volume levels. For example, earbuds that are connected to an iPhone playing audio on the highest setting, can reach around 102dB! At this volume, safe exposure time is around 7 minutes. Exceeding this can cause irreparable damage to hearing health.
Tips to Protect Your Hearing Health
Noise induced hearing loss is totally preventable. There are safety measures you can practice to protect your hearing health, this includes:
- Use the 50-60% rule: experts recommend applying the 50-60% rule. This means keeping your device at 50% – 60% of the maximum volume setting. This helps you maintain appropriate and safe volume levels, allowing you to use earbuds without compromising your hearing.
- Measure volume settings: measuring noise levels allows you to adjust your exposure time so that you are not overexposed to excessive noise. You can do this by downloading an app that measures decibels, this includes: NIOSH Sound Level Meter App (iOS), NoiSee (iOS), SLPnFFT Noise Meter (iOS), Sound Meter X (iOS), Sound Meter (Android), and SoundPrint (iOS and Android).
- Use noise canceling headphones: this measure is especially useful if you regularly use earbuds. Investing in noise canceling headphones is a great way to listen to audio safely. Noise canceling technology reduces background noise, preventing you from increasing the volume when moving through noisier settings.
- Take listening breaks: the ears and brain are constantly absorbing and processing speech and sound. Take 5-10 minute listening breaks throughout the day where you are not listening to audio. This gives the auditory system time to rest and recuperate.
In addition to these strategies, be sure to also get your hearing tested regularly. Hearing tests involve a painless and noninvasive process that measures your hearing capacity in both ears. This is a great way to monitor your hearing health and track any changes you may experience over time.