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Can Wearing Headphones or Earbuds Cause Hearing Loss?

Seems like no matter where you turn, you will see someone wearing headphones or earbuds. Learn about how they can affect you hearing, the warning signs of hearing loss and ways to protect your ears from hearing damage.




Hi, I'm Jim Cuddy. And this is Ask The Hearing Doctors and I'm joined today by Dr. Travis Stehouwer, doctor of audiology with Hearing Doctors. The Washington DC area's highest-rated audiology practice with over 1,500, five-star reviews. Travis, great to see you. Nice to see you. 


So the bottom line is... can wearing headphones or earbuds cause hearing loss?


Yes it can. But fortunately most people don't listen to headphones at a level that is damaging. But it is most certainly possible. Pretty much any headphones nowadays are capable if you turn them all the way up to cause damage.


Well and you see people I mean just about everybody walking down the street has earbuds or headphones on. And or if you're on a public transportation the same kind of thing. When you can hear what they're listening to as you're walking past them, I'm probably safe to presume that they're doing damage to their ears?


Yeah probably. So it does depend on how long they're listening to it for. But if someone is routinely turning the volume up so high that other people can hear it pretty clearly that is probably too much. Yeah.


In what instances would someone need to turn the volume up that loud?


So there are situations where maybe the background noise is quite high. So what I always hate seeing is when people are using a leaf blower or a lawnmower and then they have headphones on over that. You should have your headphones out and wear hearing protection instead. So if it really, if the background noise is so loud that you have to turn it up over that you should maybe even be wearing not instead of wearing headphones actually wearing hearing protection instead depending on what you're doing.


And then we'll talk a little bit about noise canceling but like on an airplane it is quite loud. You know if you're doing especially a long flight and so noise cancellation can be really helpful for that. So that you don't have to turn up the headphones quite so loud. Um but for like power tools, lawn mowers, things like that noise cancellation is not necessarily enough to protect your hearing? So.


I hadn't thought about it before but it's almost like double trouble. Right. I mean if you're. Yeah the lawnmower itself is loud enough to cause hearing damage. So if you're raising music to be loud enough to be heard over it, that's not good? Yeah. 


There are certain levels of volume that are that are safe, right? Can ear buds and headphones exceed those levels?


Yes. Most can. So you can sometimes buy, especially for kids, uh headphones made specifically for kids that are capped at a certain volume level. So that no matter what you set the device to the headphones themselves are not physically capable of producing a loud enough sound. But for basically anything else it all absolutely can. Yeah.


You mentioned depends on how long you're listening to it. So how long is too long?


It's a great question and unfortunately is not a very easy thing to do. So there have been instances of advice about the 60-60 rule. So no more than 60 percent volume for no more than 60 minutes. But that's not necessarily a very helpful um thing. Like it's it's it's very conservative. So if you follow that rule you're definitely safe. But you could probably do quite a bit more than that without an issue. So there are certainly some people especially working from home that might be listening to something all day long. And if they listen to it at a quiet enough level that's perfectly fine. 


So like every night when I go to sleep I sleep with a fan. And that fan continuously going is quiet enough that it is not damaging to my hearing. So there is a certain level under which you could listen to something 24/7 without any damage. And so it's hard because we can't necessarily notice the difference ourselves. It's not like we can magically perceive this is one decibel too loud I need to stop. And that's what can be so tricky about these things. So you just generally want to be careful, try to keep it as low as reasonably possible you know. Reduce the amount of background noise so you don't have to turn them up so high. As I mentioned noise cancellation can be helpful so that there isn't quite so or especially headphones that isolate more than just the earbuds because then you might not need it quite so loud and you could probably listen to it more safely for longer.


I would imagine there are plenty of people because I'm not sure that I would know what is 60 percent of the volume? Right. It also can vary a lot. So um you know sixty percent on my phone is not anywhere close to sixty percent on my stereo which is not anywhere close to sixty percent of my car. Those are all wildly different loudness'. So that's also why that rule as nice as it would be if it were universally true isn't isn't the greatest advice. But certainly is very conservative. You're not gonna you know damage if you follow that rule but you can probably do more very safely. Sure.


So what other things can people do to protect their hearing while they are wearing earbuds and headphones because some people that's their job? 


Right. Yeah so you do want to make sure to be careful when it comes to earwax. Some people make a lot of earwax and especially those earbuds can really push it down. It can also create kind of a moist environment if you're really wearing them for many hours on end. So you just want to be careful about that. You can cause issues with that if you have had issues in the past with um you know wax building up or with an outer ear infection. Um you might want to be careful with how much you use headphones. Um and then um yeah just being mindful of you know how much you're you're using it and how loud it is. Um and you know maybe consider if you could play it out of gentle speakers just to you know if physically it's it's um you know too much on your ear or getting kind of warm or you know anything like that. Sure.


What about just wearing one earbud versus both? 


Yeah, you certainly could do that. Especially alternating. Especially if you do need to have some perception of what's going on around you. You know if someone walks by and says your name and being able to be more alert with just one that could certainly work. Yeah. 


But is there also possibly a downside to just wearing one?


No it's you you might turn it up slightly higher than you would if you're wearing two. The difference isn't huge um but some people just like listening to you know music I would say is probably more enjoyable in two ears than just one. Um but yeah you could certainly especially if you're alternating which ear you're using the headphones in. Yeah. 


Can wearing earbuds which always talk about the inner part of the ear can can can it have any damage to the outer part of the ear?


No, not really. There they can be uncomfortable certainly. Uh if it's pressing on your ear or if you're wearing glasses or hearing aids and it's pressing up against that. So uh it probably it can't really do any you know harm but it'll get uncomfortable if it's not the right headphones for you. Yeah.


Now what sort of signs should people be aware of as far as you know maybe temporary hearing damage that could possibly lead to extensive hearing damage?


Yeah, if other people comment that maybe your music is too loud. If you notice any ringing or buzzing in your ears after taking the headphones out. If you feel like you're hearing is a little bit worse after you're listening to loud music. Um these are all also the signs um like after a concert or using power tools. This can all be a sign of some temporary damage to your ears and that can lead to permanent damage sometimes even if you're extremely unlucky after just one time. 


I've been to concerts where it's been that loud and you come out of it and it's ringing and it's ringing. Is there anything you can do to to help alleviate that or to help that along at all?


There has been some research looking at maybe taking some antioxidants immediately afterwards but unfortunately kind of the way that the blood supply works you'd have to take an almost dangerous amount to really get the amount actually in your ear. So there's not a lot that you can do after the fact other than avoiding any further damage until it recovers in the next few days.


Now we've been talking all along here about earbuds and headphones collectively but is one worse or better than the other?


Not necessarily. Earbuds could be in that they're more likely to push wax down as opposed to the headphones probably don't. Um they also are less noise isolating than the over-the-ear ones. So if there is some sort of background noise you might be more inclined to turn those up over the background noise as opposed to kind of um being able to suppress them a little bit with the over-the-ear headphone. But they are both certainly capable of producing a damaging amount of noise. 


In the end keep the music down to a a 60 a 60 percent level. Yeah. If at all possible. I know it's very enjoyable to have loud music and you know maybe there are times where a song or two is fine but if you're routinely doing it all the time uh you're you can definitely suffer some long-term consequences. And you know ultimately enjoy music less when your hearing is damaged. Yeah. 


Well Travis thank you so much for your time and the information, it was great having you here. Absolutely, thank you.



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