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Using earbuds is a common way people listen to audio. From music to podcasts and talking on the phone; earbuds have become everyday items. While they make it convenient to listen to audio, earbud use can actually impact hearing health. Earbuds can release soundwaves into the ear at a high volume, high enough to contribute to noise induced hearing loss. Exposure to loud noise is a pervasive cause of hearing loss and earbud use is a common way that people are regularly absorbing excessive noise levels. It is important to be aware of the noise levels you are exposed to and to practice ways to protect your hearing health. Noise induced hearing loss is completely preventable so integrating safety measures can significantly reduce your risk.
Noise Induced Hearing Loss
One time or regular exposure to loud noise can permanently damage the auditory system – the sensory system for hearing. Specifically, loud noise can impair the sensory cells that are in the cochlea. There are thousands of these cells in the inner ear which play a major role in how sound is absorbed and processed. Sensory cells convert incoming soundwaves into electrical signals which are sent to the brain to be further processed. The brain assigns meaning to these signals, allowing us to understand what we hear.
Loud noise can desensitize and weaken sensory cells, reducing their capacity to effectively process soundwaves. This results in the brain receiving less auditory information, producing hearing loss. Unlike other types of cells we have, sensory cells in the inner ear do not regenerate. There are also no treatments that can repair them which makes the damage permanent, resulting in chronic hearing loss.
Impact of Earbud Use on Hearing Health
It is important to understand how earbuds can put hearing health at risk. Sound is measured in decibels (dB) and according to experts, sound above 85dB can be hazardous for hearing health. This is equivalent to busy city traffic, a noisy restaurant during peak hours, and a hair dryer. Experts suggest that the maximum threshold for safe listening is 85dB for 8 hours a day. But for sound that is greater than 85dB, exposure time should be significantly reduced – by half for every 3 decibel increase.
Earbuds are a common way people are exposed to excessive sound. Earbuds are used daily and this repeated exposure can affect hearing health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 1 billion people globally are at high risk of developing noise induced hearing loss from loud noise exposure. This includes exposure to audio from personal devices. You may be surprised to learn that earbuds can deliver dangerously high volume levels. For example, earbuds that are connected to an iPhone playing audio on the highest setting, can reach around 102dB! Safe exposure time to this level of sound is around 7 minutes. Going beyond this can contribute to noise induced hearing loss.
Tips to Protect Your Hearing Health
Noise induced hearing loss is completely preventable. Practicing safety measures can protect your hearing health and wellness. A few tips you can integrate into everyday life include:
- Apply the 50-60% rule: the 50-60% rule describes maintaining lower volume settings on your electronic device by keeping your device at 50% – 60% of the maximum volume setting. This allows you to safely listen to audio.
- Measure volume settings: another useful tip is to measure noise levels so that you can adjust your exposure. You can do this by downloading an app that measures decibels: NIOSH Sound Level Meter App (iOS), NoiSee (iOS), SLPnFFT Noise Meter (iOS), Sound Meter X (iOS), Sound Meter (Android), and SoundPrint (iOS and Android).
- Use noise canceling headphones: noise canceling technology is designed to reduce background noise. This prevents you from having to increase the volume on your electronic device when moving through environments that are noisier.
- Take listening breaks: take 5-10 minute listening breaks throughout the day where you are not exposed to much sound. This gives your auditory system a break from absorbing and processing sound.
In addition to these tips, it is important to have your hearing health evaluated regularly. Integrate a hearing test in annual health check-ins. This allows you to monitor your hearing health and identify any changes you may experience over time.