Illustration of earphones behind a silhouetted person with question marks in the background
Listening to music at high volumes is not damaging in moderation, but doing it regularly will accelerate hearing loss. (Illustration by Julie Chow, University of California, Berkeley)

Earphones Can Be Detrimental To Your Hearing, Especially at High Volumes

Both earbuds and headphones can cause damage to your ears if you regularly listen to them for long periods of time.

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Illustration of earphones behind a silhouetted person with question marks in the background

Both earbuds and headphones can cause damage to your ears if you regularly listen to them for long periods of time.

Listening to music is a routine activity for many, especially when working and exercising. Putting on your earphones and jamming to your tunes is cathartic and fun, but most music lovers don’t realize earphones can damage their hearing. Other people have heard of the harmful effects but don’t know how earphones are detrimental to their ears. To explain the consequences and the ways to safely listen, it’s important to first define what earphones are.

Simply put, earphones are devices worn in or over the ear, able to block outside noise and convert energy into sound. Headphones, worn over the ear, and earbuds, worn in the ear, are two types of earphones. Both types of earphones can be harmful.

Earphones and Hearing Loss

You’ve probably taken off your earphones by now, believing you’ll begin to lose your hearing, but you may not have to worry. If you’re listening to music at lower volumes, the effects on your ears are negligible. You can listen for hours using earphones and not experience any harmful side effects, as long as you moderate the volume.

However, when you crank the noise to the max and people can hear your music from five feet away, that’s when you start having problems. You won’t immediately feel the consequences, but prolonged periods of high-volume exposure can seriously damage your hearing.

Ear Structure and Hearing Loss

The ear is divided into three parts: the inner, middle and outer ear, each working together to send messages to the brain. Both the middle and inner-ear areas reside within the ear. The most integral part is the cochlea in the inner ear. In the cochlea are tiny hair cells called cilia that bend when an audible sound is heard.

The hair cells in your cochlea gradually die off as you age and can be damaged by loud noises. They do not grow back. Once the cells are damaged, they stay damaged. If you like blaring music at high volumes — above 60% of the maximum volume — while wearing earphones, you are at an increased risk of permanent damage to your inner ear. Eventually, you will suffer hearing loss.

Elderly people often experience hearing loss because too few working hair cells can relay sensory messages. Construction workers, military personnel and other people exposed to noisy environments often lose hearing prematurely.

Types of Earphones

Of the two types of earphones discussed earlier, earbuds are the most dangerous. Earbuds project sound directly into your inner ear and usually let outside noises in. Background noises combined with the sound from your earbuds can be detrimental at high volumes.

Headphones are a bit different. Instead of sending sound straight into the ear, headphones go around the ear entirely. Most have great sound-canceling qualities, which help eliminate exterior noise and decrease the amount of sound entering your ear. However, they are still harmful when used for prolonged periods at high volumes.

The simplest way to recognize hearing loss is if your ears have consistent ringing or other recurrent noises after listening to loud noises. Another sign of hearing loss is only perceiving music at high volumes via your earphones. Hearing loss is gradual, so identifying it sooner rather than later is best.

5 Ways to Use Earphones Safely

You may be wondering how to better protect yourself from the harmful effects of earphones. Here are some tips.

Swap Your Earbuds for Headphones

Earbuds are all the rage nowadays, and AirPods and Beats earbuds are selling in mass numbers. Headphones, though, are noise-canceling and less damaging with long-term usage. If you want to cut your ears some slack, swap out your earbuds and grab some noise-canceling headphones for a better alternative — in moderation, of course.

Limit Yourself To 60 Minutes at 60% Volume

If you desire to listen to music at 60% of the maximum volume, health experts suggest only doing so for 60 minutes. Going above 60% lessens the time you should spend with earphones on. The general idea is the longer you wish to spend listening, the lower the volume should be. Also, try using earbuds just for 60 minutes a day, even at low volume levels. No one is perfect; you may go over 60 minutes, which is fine if you don’t do so repeatedly.

Keep Your Volume Constant, Even in High-Noise Environments

People have a temptation to increase their volume when the environment around them becomes louder. When on a train, plane or in a crowd, you should resist the need to turn your volume up to drown out ambient noise. With a loud external setting and earphones above 60% volume, you will experience two times the adverse effects of listening, particularly via earbuds.

Be Aware of How Long You’ve Spent Listening

Comparable to the second suggestion, being cognizant of how long you’ve spent listening using earphones is vital. Know when enough is enough; too long is more harmful. Set the alarm on your phone or computer to remind yourself when you’ve spent too much time using earphones.

Take Breaks From Your Earphones

After wearing earphones for an extended time, giving your ears a break is advisable. Give yourself some time to recuperate. If you surpass 60 minutes of earbud usage, you should put away the device and stretch your ears’ metaphorical legs, even at low volume levels. Perhaps you can exchange your earphones for a speaker once you’ve overextended your earphone usage.

Writer Profile

Joseph Gorzka III

University of Virginia
English and East Asian Studies

A student at the University of Virginia, an avid reader and a dabbler in the writing arts.

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