What are the risks of hearing loss due to the use of earbuds?

Headphones and earbuds are somewhat of a necessity in this day and age. They ease the monotony of household chores and exercise, allow children to enjoy their music and videos in the car without disturbing parents and siblings, and let busy parents take hands-free phone calls while multitasking.

However, these useful little gadgets can cause serious and irreversible damage to hearing, especially for young adults.

The World Health Organisation estimates that over 1 billion people aged 12-35 years are at risk of hearing loss due to headphones and exposure to loud environments.

A recent study from the National Acoustic Laboratories at Macquarie University found that one in 10 Australians are listening to audio devices above the recommended volume level.

For such a useful everyday accessory, it’s important to be aware of the risks of using earbuds on a daily basis.

What is noise-induced hearing loss?

In the human ear, sound vibrations travel from the eardrum through the middle ear to the inner ear (or cochlea). The cochlea is a tube filled with fluid and hair cells, which move according to how strong the sound vibrations are. The cochlea turns the vibrations into sound signals the brain interprets.

When these hair cells are exposed to loud or prolonged noise, they lose sensitivity to vibration, which can lead to permanent hearing loss. Signs of hearing loss include tinnitus (ringing in the ears), difficulty hearing in general, and the increased need to turn up the volume for television and listening devices.

Exposure to loud environments such as construction sites, sporting events and concerts can contribute to hearing loss, but daily headphone use can also do a similar amount of damage.

How do earbuds affect your hearing?

All types of headphones can put your hearing at risk, but earbuds are capable of doing more damage. They sit closer to the ear canal and don’t block out exterior sounds very well, making it more likely for the user to compensate by raising the volume.

You can still enjoy the use of earbuds, but be aware of both the volume and duration of use. Loud volumes can cause hearing loss, but using earbuds at a moderate volume for long periods of time can be just as damaging.

Reducing the risks

Hearing loss is permanent. You can’t undo the damage, but you can reduce your risks of causing further deterioration.

  • Limit your portable device’s volume to 80 per cent or less, and listen to it for no longer than 90 minutes daily. For kids, go for even lower volume and shorter listening time.
  • Limit the use of earbuds in louder environments such as the gym, public transport, and loud work spaces, where you could be tempted to ‘drown-out’ other noises.
  • Better yet, take advantage of leading technology and look into noise-cancelling headphones. They might cost more and you’ll need to increase your personal safety awareness, but good hearing is priceless and it’s something you can never get back.
  • Your ears adapt to their environment. If you play your device at a louder volume, your ears will adjust. The same goes for a softer volume. Give your ears a chance to get used to lower decibels.
  • Take breaks and enjoy the serenity every now and then. Visual ‘unplugging’ has become a popular way to reduce stress and addiction to personal devices. Auditory unplugging can also have positive effects on your health – and most importantly, your hearing.