Earbuds are basically a pair of tiny speakers that you wear inside your ears. At low volumes, they’re useful little devices. But playing loud music so close to your eardrums can cause permanent hearing loss.
How Does Noise Cause Hearing Loss?
The ear is made up of three parts that work together to process sounds: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. Part of the inner ear, called the cochlea, contains tiny hair cells. These hair cells help send sound messages to the brain. Loud noise can damage the hair cells. When this happens, the cochlea can't relay sound messages to the brain as well.
Unlike damage to other parts of your body, inner ear damage never heals. Over time, as more and more hair cells get damaged, your hearing will get worse and worse.
What Are Signs of Hearing Problems?
Noise-induced hearing loss from using earbuds usually takes a while. So, many people don't know they have a problem until it's too late.
Signs of hearing loss include:
ringing, buzzing, or roaring in the ears after hearing a loud noise
muffling of sounds
If you think you have signs of hearing loss, call your doctor. The doctor may examine you and send you to see an audiologist, a person trained to test hearing. The audiologist can also answer your questions about using earbuds and about protecting your hearing.
What’s the Right Way to Use Earbuds?
Noise-induced hearing loss due to earbuds is 100% preventable if you don’t use them too long or too loudly.
Doctors recommend the 60%/60-minute rule:
Listen to music or play a movie or video game at no more than 60% of the maximum volume.
Limit the amount of time you spend with earbuds in your ears to 60 minutes.
Here's another way to find out if your earbuds are at a safe volume: Ask people sitting near you if they can hear your music. If they can, it's a sign that your hearing is being damaged. Turn the volume down until other people can’t hear it.
Keep in mind, too, that listening to music at a loud volume can make you unaware of what's going on around you. That increases your chances of an accident. If you're running on a bike path, for example, it's hard to hear a cyclist shout, "Heads up!" when your music drowns out all other sounds.
Are There Other Options?
It might feel like every phone or music player comes packaged with a tiny pair of earbuds. After all, they're cheap to make and easy to use.
So what can you do? Go retro with headphones. There's a reason they're making a comeback. Sometimes old-school is better. Most electronics stores have entire sections devoted to headphones. The best are noise-canceling headphones, which help block out other noises. That way, you don't have to turn up the volume on your music as loud to hear it well. Noise-canceling headphones also can be good for staying focused on studying or homework, but they're not great choices if you need to hear the world around you.
Headphones that go over your ears can also damage your hearing if you use them too long or play music too loudly. They're just not as much of a risk as earbuds are: Having the source of the sound in your ear canal can increase a sound's volume by 6 to 9 decibels — enough to cause some serious problems.
Earbuds exist because so many of us love music. So protect your hearing so you can continue to appreciate music.