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How Your Headphones Could Be Causing Your Hearing Loss

Man using headphones

There is a lot of information out there about headphones and whether or not they actually damage the ears. Everyone wants to know if it’s true that headphones cause hearing loss. They tend to ask us things like:

  • How quickly does the damage occur?
  • How loud is too loud?
  • Are some headphones better than others?

In other words, people want to know what all the fuss is about, and just how far they can push the limits.

The truth is that headphones, which are more common than ever, can cause a lot of damage to the ears, which may eventually lead to noise-induced, sensorineural hearing loss  over time.

The truth is in the statistics. It’s not just something we say to our teenagers to get them to take off their headphones so they will pay more attention to us! The rate of hearing loss among teenagers has risen about 30% since the 90s. Experts believe that the regular use of headphones – earbuds in particular – is to blame.

Here’s how headphones are contributing to hearing loss in people of all ages:

Hearing Loss from Headphones

By now most people are well aware that exposure to loud noises can damage their ears, and that repeated exposure to such loud noises can inflict more and more damage as time goes on – no one questions this fact. While headphones may not be injecting your ears with the irritating, steady sound of a lawnmower or chainsaw day after day, these seemingly harmless accessories can lead to noise-induced hearing loss by isolating loud noises and placing them right next to your sensitive ear canals.

While the inner ears are busy processing the sounds from headphones, oftentimes for hours on end, they cannot take a break, and, just like how the body’s muscles tire out with extended use, so do our ears, so to speak. The inner ear’s fine hairs that transmit sound for the brain eventually tire out and stop functioning. They burn out, they get fried, and they don’t ever recover. In other words, headphones can cause permanent hearing damage over time, and not enough people believe the hearing loss is actually permanent.

The misconception that headphones aren’t capable of too much damage likely persists because some people tend to think that since they are choosing to listen to pleasurable sounds – music is candy for our brain, basically – the sounds couldn’t possibly be hurting us. Unfortunately, just like too much actual candy can rot the teeth, too much loud candy for our ears can ‘rot’ the ears.

While the ears are smart, they aren’t smart enough to tell the different between good noises and bad noises. To the inner workings of the human ear, a noise is just a noise. Whether it’s The Beatles, Metallica, Garth Brooks or Lady Gaga, music is going to have a negative impact on your hearing if is played too loudly, too close to the ears, and for too long.

Types of Headphones

There are two main types of headphones: over the ear and ear buds. The over-the-ear headphone style first became popular when Sony introduced them with their Walkmans. It wasn’t until Apple released the iPod in the early 2000s that ear buds became widely popular, overtaking the traditional style.

Of the two varieties of headphones, ear buds can do the most damage because they place the sound waves much closer to the delicate hairs of the inner ear. Many of them cannot cancel out exterior sounds, like the hum of a bus, the crying baby on the airplane, or a colleague yammering on the phone a cubicle away, so a person wearing ear buds usually instinctively turns up the volumes of their devices in an attempt to block out outside noise.

How Much Is Too Much?

When you’re cranking the volume on your smartphone with your headphones plugged in, does your device ever warn you not to exceed a certain point? Listen to your phone! It’s smart and it knows what it’s talking about. Most devices are capable of reaching a maximum of 120 decibels, which is well beyond 85 decibels, the level of sound that starts to cause minor damage. So, if you’re listening to Van Halen at full tilt, you’re beyond what’s good for you (even though you probably feel pretty good).

Reducing Your Risk of Hearing Loss Caused by Headphones

While it’s true that headphones can lead to long-term hearing loss when used improperly, the good news is that there are some ways to lessen the impact just by staying within the recommended guidelines.

Start by adhering to the 60/60 rule audiologists recommend following, which states that you should only listen to your music through your headphones at a maximum of 60 percent volume, for no longer than 60 minutes per day.

If limiting your use of headphones is not an option, at least opt for headphones that sit over the ear rather than ear buds, as this will likely reduce the level at which you play your music. Most higher-quality over-the-ear encompass the entire outer ear with comfortable foam, making them quite effective and comfortable. Just be sure to use caution with these if you are running or cycling on the roads, as you won’t be able to hear traffic cues around you.

Finally, for activities where ear buds are preferred, consider getting some custom earmolds from a hearing health professional. Beltone Custom EarMolds are a discreet, affordable way to transform your existing ear buds into something that won’t budge. They are taken from an impression of your ear canal and work like the noise-cancelling ear-muff style of headphones, but without the bulk.

If you are concerned you may already be experiencing noise-induced hearing loss through the extended use of headphones, or any other cause, come see us at Beltone for an Office . We have locations across the United States to serve you at your earliest convenience.

John Cariola, Au.D.
John has been working in the audiology industry since 1983 and has a true love and passion for everything the hearing health world has to offer. He grew up witnessing the British Invasion of The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, etc. which really means he started out life with sound, really loud sound. And his passion for all sound continues today. John is currently Beltone's Director of Product Management. More About John

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