are earbuds safe

A danger is lurking nearby when you’re at the gym, jogging in your neighborhood, or even just taking the bus to work. It’s the earbuds in your ears. You could be doing permanent damage to your hearing if you use them improperly.

Hearing loss isn’t an inevitable part of aging. In fact, it is estimated that one-third of permanent hearing loss is preventable. And earbuds can be as dangerous to ears as loud tools like chainsaws and jackhammers, motorcycles, and, of course, pop concerts.

Earbuds exist because so many of us love music. So it’s a good idea to protect your hearing so you can continue to enjoy music for many years to come.

Ear Anatomy

The ear consists of the external ear canal, middle ear, and inner ear. The middle ear is separated from the ear canal by the eardrum. The middle ear contains the malleus, incus, and stapes, which are also known as the hammer, anvil, and stirrup. The inner ear contains the cochlea, which is the main sensory organ of hearing. The Eustachian tube runs from the middle ear to the area in the back of the nose.

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What Causes Noise-Induced Hearing Loss?

To be heard, sound energy has to be strong enough to bend tiny hair cells in the cochlea, a part of the inner ear. But loud noise can damage these hair cells. A small amount of damage will have little effect on your hearing.  But repeated exposure to loud noise will continue to damage these hair cells, and eventually, the cochlea can’t relay sound messages to the brain as well as it used to.

If there’s nothing else you take away from this blog, remember this: Unlike damage to other parts of your body, inner ear damage never heals. Any damage done is permanent. Those hairs never grow back and, over time, as more and more hair cells get damaged, your hearing will get irretrievably worse and worse.

The key is the amount of time you are around loud noise. The longer you are around it, the more damage it will do. That’s why some professions, like construction workers, factory workers, policemen, and military personnel experience more hearing loss.

Dangerous Noise Levels

Noise levels are measured in decibels (dB): the higher the number, the louder the noise. Any sound over 85dB can be harmful, especially if you’re exposed to it for a long time.
The top volume on an Apple music player, like the iPhone, is about 102 decibels. How loud is this? Here are some comparisons:

  • Whispering – 30dB
  • Conversation – 60dB
  • Heavy traffic – 80-90dB
  • Motorcycle – 96-100dB
  • Leaf blower – 106-115dB
  • Rock concert/sporting event – 120-129dB
  • Plane taking off – 120dB

Three Warning Signs Your Music Is Too Loud

Exposure to noise above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. But without a decibel meter, how do you know if your music is too loud? Here are some signs to watch for:

  • You can’t hear others just an arm’s length away speaking to you unless they are shouting.
  • People sitting near you can hear your music through your earbuds.
  • If you remove your earbuds and hold them out in front of you at an arm’s length, you can hear the music clearly.

If any of these are the case, turn down the music before it does more damage to your ears.

Signs of Hearing Loss

Noise-induced hearing loss usually takes years to notice. Because it happens gradually, a lot of people don’t know they have a problem until it’s too late.

Signs you may have hearing loss include:

  • Ringing, buzzing, or roaring in your ears after hearing a loud noise.
  • Muffling or distortion of sounds.
  • Difficulty in hearing at crowded venues.
  • A need to keep turning the volume up.

If you have any of these symptoms, call your doctor. Your doctor may send you to an audiologist who will likely give you a series of tests. Your doctor or audiologist can also answer your questions or concerns about the use of earbuds.

Three Ways to Use Earbuds Safely

Noise-induced hearing loss due to earbuds is completely preventable if you use them smartly and in moderation. Here are three tips to help:

Use the 60-percent/60-minute rule

What is this rule? It’s simple:

  • Listen to music or play a movie or video game at no more than 60 percent of the maximum volume.
  • Limit the amount of time you spend with earbuds in your ears to 60 minutes a day.
  • The louder the volume (above 60 percent), the shorter your listening time should be (less than 60 minutes).

If you will be listening for longer than 90 minutes, you should consider reducing the volume further (under 60 percent). That way, if you listen for longer, you will prevent any hearing loss issues.

Use headphones instead of earbuds

Noise-canceling headphones can be a better option since they help block out other noises. That way, you don’t have to turn up the volume on your music as loud to hear it well. Plus, having the source of the sound in your ear canal like earbuds can increase a sound’s volume by 6 to 9 decibels — enough to cause damage.

But remember that headphones that go over your ears can also damage your hearing if you use them too long or play music too loudly.

Take it easy

Remember moderation. Turn the volume up just enough so you can hear your music comfortably. Even just turning down the volume a little bit can make a big difference in reducing your risk of hearing loss.

Other Health Hazards of Loud Noises

Exposure to loud noise can damage your hearing. But we’re finding that it also has other health consequences. For example:

  • Regular exposure to loud noise has been associated with cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure in a number of studies. A study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 2018 found higher rates of hypertension and high cholesterol in people who were regularly exposed to loud noises at work.
  • In a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Cardiology, German researchers found that people who reported being annoyed by sounds such as the rumble of car and construction vehicle engines and horns in their neighborhood had a higher risk of atrial fibrillation — an irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots and stroke.
  • Hearing loss isn’t the only problem that earbuds can cause. Listening to music at a loud volume can make you unaware of what’s going on around you. That increases your chances of an accident. If you’re running or bicycling, you may not hear a car coming if you are cranking the tunes.

Earbuds are a part of modern life, and few of us would give them up willingly. But be smart and use a little moderation so that you can continue to enjoy music and programs for the rest of your life.

If you think you suffer from hearing loss, talk to your primary care provider. To find a provider near you, to

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Harrisburg

UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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