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Are Earbuds Bad for Your Ears? How to Prevent Hearing Loss.

What is the correlation between using earbuds/headphones and hearing loss?

This won’t be the first time you hear about earbuds being harmful to hearing. In this blog post, we address why earbuds may be more likely to cause hearing damage and ways you can avoid it. First, let’s go through some background on how noises can cause damage to our ears.

In addition to VOLUME, both TIME and DISTANCE are major factors when considering whether a sound is going to be harmful.

What are damaging levels of sound?

When sounds are 85 decibels (dB) or louder, they are likely to lead to noise damage. For every increase of 3 dB over 85 dB, the amount of time you can listen without suffering damage is cut in half. See the chart below, where you could spend an 8-hour work day in roughly 85 dB of noise without causing damage to your hearing. But if that noise is just slightly increased to 88 dB, you can only listen for 4 hours before damage occurs.

What sounds in my life might be harmful? Wondering what sounds reach these damaging levels? Below, you’ll see a list of common sounds that can reach damaging noise levels.

As you can see, many common household appliances and frequently attended events can have harmful levels of noise, so it’s important to keep in mind how much time you are spending listening to these sounds.

What is a safe distance to keep from noise?

The further the distance between you and the sound source, the less volume will be reaching your ears and potentially causing damage. Every time you double the distance between your ears and the sound source, the volume decreases by 6 dB.

In the image below, you see that when you are directly next to the sound source, there is no reduction in volume. When you are 2 feet away, the volume is 6 dB less. When you are 4 feet away, the volume is 12 dB less. And when you are 8 feet away, the volume is 18 dB less.

To tie this all together, if you are trying to avoid harming your ears:

  • you could stand next to the speaker for up to 15 minutes
  • you could stand 2 feet away from the speaker for up to 1 hour
  • you could stand 4 feet away from the speaker for up to 4 hours
  • or you could stand 8 feet away from the speaker for over 8 hours

Where do earbuds fit in all of this?

Earbuds are very commonly used and almost everyone has access to them. They deliver sounds directly to your eardrum, which vibrates and sets the hearing organs into motion. Because they are all made by different manufacturers, it’s hard to determine exactly how much sound you are getting from your devices. The maximum volume in different earbuds may deliver a different level of sound.

Some well-known earbuds can play sounds as loud as 112 dB and well-known headphones get up to 115 dB. Knowing what you know now, you can see the distance between the sound and the ear is 0, so you are getting the full amount of that volume delivered to your ears. And at that volume, how long can you listen to music safely without causing damage? Roughly 30 seconds to 1 minute. That’s not even the duration of one song.

In a quiet environment, listening to music at the maximum level may feel way too loud. But what about in the presence of background noise? When you listen to music on a train or airplane, it’s hard to get the music to be louder than the engine noise. Therefore, it’s common to turn the volume all the way up to hear it. You may not be able to tell that the music is very loud, but it is STILL playing at 112-115 dB. This is important to keep in mind.

When you are in the presence of background noise, it’s best to wear hearing protection, rather than try to cover up the noise with additional sounds. 

Although the structures of the ears that respond to sound are resilient when we are young, they have a memory of all loud noises that breaks them down over time. While a few incidents of very loud noise may not cause noticeable hearing loss, it is the repetition of these events over time that causes the structures to weaken and eventually die.

The bad news is that this damage is irreversible. The good news, however, is that it is preventable.

A good rule of thumb is the 60-60 rule, which recommends listening to earbuds/headphones at only 60% of their maximum volume for 60 minutes at a time.

It’s good to give your ears a break! If you find that you’re having trouble hearing your music or other content at 60% of the maximum volume, you should try to find a quieter listening environment or a different way to play the sounds that allow you some distance from the speaker. 

Key Takeaways –

  • You can prevent hearing loss due to noise damage
  • Turn the volume down
  • Give your ears regular breaks
  • Reduce the amount of time you listen to earbuds/headphones
  • If you can change the sound source, choose something further away from the ears

If you or someone that you know is experiencing hearing loss, schedule an appointment with one of our Audiologists today!

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