Can Headphones Cause Hearing Loss?

Most of us know that listening to loud music can damage our hearing. We’re also aware of the devastating consequences of hearing loss on our lives. Yet only a few dare ask the most critical question: Can headphones cause hearing loss?

Research by World Health Organization tells us that the unsafe use of headphones can cause hearing loss. Around 50% of teenagers and young adults worldwide (almost 1.1 billion people) are at the risk of permanent hearing loss due to ‘unsafe levels’ of sound coming out of their headsets.

The study answers one key question but raises many more. How can headphones cause hearing loss? How loud is too loud? What is the ‘unsafe level of sound’ that WHO wants us to worry about? These are some of the queries we’re going to answer in detail below.

How Headphones Can Cause Hearing Loss?

Hearing loss from headphones is caused by two factors: loudness of the sound coming out from the headphones and duration of listening to that sound. Both of these factors can individually or in unison cause temporary or permanent hearing loss.

Let’s discuss both of them in detail:

  • What are loud sounds?

Experts tell us that any sounds in the range of 80 to 85 decibels (dB) are considered loud. The noise generated by leaf blowers and gas-powered lawnmowers generally falls in this range. Sustained exposure to loud sounds for eight hours can potentially damage our hearing.

Data shows that almost 50% of the world’s under-35 population sets the volume at too loud while listening to music via headphones. Perhaps that’s the reason why the rate of hearing loss in people in their 20s has already hit the 20 percent mark.


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How to check if your headphones are loud?

Here are multiple simple ways to check if your headphones are loud:

  • Perform a test

This test requires three things: a pair of foam earplugs, a noise-free setting, and a 2 to 3 days break from using headphones. Once the break period is over, go to the noise-free setting, put the earplugs in your ears and focus on your breathing. You should hear a slow ringing sound in your ears.

Wait for a day and get back to your regular routine with the headphones. Then, after using the headphones for a day, redo the ringing test. If you notice that the ringing is louder than it was in the first test, that’s a sign that your headphones are loud.

  • Ask others around you

To check whether your headphones are too loud or, ask others sitting around you whether they can hear your music, podcast, radio, or whatever it’s that you’re listening to. If they tell you that they can, tone down the volume of your headset.

Alternatively, you can try talking to others around you. Check out whether you can maintain a conversation without scrolling down the volume slider. If you’re unable to hear them over your headphones’ sound, it’s a clear sign that they’re too loud.

  • Download volume control app

Multiple smartphone applications display volume intensity and indicate whether exposure to them is risky for the listener. These apps are free to download, work with various operating systems and can be used to prevent the risk of noise-induced hearing loss.

Volume Control is one app you can download on Android devices. It’s a feature-rich application that gives you complete control over the volume settings of every application on your device. It lets you monitor and control the volume settings for multimedia, notifications, calls, system, ringer, and Bluetooth.

How long can you listen to music safely?

World Health Organization tells us that we can safely listen to music for up to one hour a day. However, if the music’s volume is too loud, WHO warns that even one hour can be too much. Safe listening depends on both the volume of the music and the duration we’re listening to it.

To further complicate matters, the relationship between music’s volume level and listening duration isn’t linear. Both of them don’t increase or decrease at the same rate. While we can safely expose our ears to 85dB for up to 8 hours, exposure to 108dB is safe for up to three minutes only.

That’s because, while eighty decibels is twice as loud for our inner ear as 70 dB, 90 decibels is 4x louder. Hence why we have come up with this simple suggestion: the louder the volume level of your music, the lower should be your exposure to it.

Researchers at Harvard back this suggestion. They’re of the view that while we should be able to listen to our favorite tracks for an unlimited time (at a comfortable level), it’s necessary to balance the loudness of the music we’re listening to with the duration of usage.

This table shows how much time sound levels take to damage our hearing permanently:

[wpdatatable id=8]

Data Sources: CDC, UofM, DCPU

How to listen to music safely?

Follow these tips to prevent hearing loss from headphones:

  • Download a volume level monitoring app on your smartphone or devices. Make sure to check out its display every few minutes to remain aware of the loudness of the sound and duration you’ve been listening to it.
  • Take off the headphones after you’ve listened to music for a prolonged session. After an extended listening session, turn off the music, take off the headphones from your ears and sit at a peaceful location where the noise level isn’t high.
  • Invest in earplugs or customizable ear molds. They will come in handy when you’re exposed to loud noises for an extended period, such as during a sporting event or concert. They’ll block out the extraneous external noise while letting you enjoy your surroundings.
  • Use noise-cancelling headphones. The noise in your background also decides the volume of your music. For instance, a person sitting on the train will likely turn up the volume to block out the external noise. Noise-cancelling headphones block ambient noise to let you keep the volume low
  • Take listening breaks. Here’s why we’re offering this piece of advice: the louder your music’s volume level, the less time you should listen to it. You’d thus do well via your headphones for 60 minutes at 60% of volume before turning off the music.
  • Swap earbuds with headphones. Some people aren’t sure of the differences between earbuds and headphones. Earbuds refer to those small devices that fit snugly in your ear, at a minimal distance from the eardrum. That’s why you should swap them with headphones that sit atop your ears.
  • Set a maximum volume limit: Make sure your device’s sound levels are between 60 and 85 decibels. If you’re using iPhone, select Settings > Music > Volume limit to set a volume limit. Alternatively, you can check your smartphone’s settings to confirm whether it allows setting a volume limit.

How Can Loud Noise Damage Hearing?

When we listen to loud noise for an extended period, the cells in our inner ear are overworked. The result is temporary hearing loss and our hearing improves as the cells recover. However, when exposure to very loud noise is prolonged, the cells may get damaged beyond repair, causing permanent hearing loss.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) can be the result of a one-time exposure to a gigantic ‘impulse’ sound, such as a nearby shotgun firing or explosion. Or it may happen after sustained exposure to loud sounds over a prolonged period of time, such as noise generated by a lawnmower.

Some of the signs of NIHL include:

  • Difficulty listening to conversations in a noisy place
  • Repeatedly asking others to speak clearly and slowly
  • Repeatedly asking others to repeat their words
  • Increasing the volume of your smartphone or television
  • Poor sensitivity to high-pitched sounds (e.g., doorbell, alarm clock, birds)
  • Ringing in the ears.

To save yourself from NIHL, make sure your exposure to sounds at or above 70 decibels is minimal. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) states that this sound level, which is that of a normal conversation, is less likely to cause hearing loss.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Can you recover from noise-induced hearing loss?

Health experts tell us that permanent noise-induced hearing loss cannot be treated. The best you can do then is to prevent your temporary hearing loss (in which your hearing will automatically recover after about 16 hours) from getting permanent.

You can do this by listening to your favorite tracks and podcasts at low volume, using noise-cancelling headphones, setting a maximum volume limit on your smartphone, and taking listening breaks. You can also download a volume monitoring app on your smartphone to keep your volume levels in check.

How to use headphones without damaging ears?

Start by swapping your ‘normal’ headphones with their noise-cancelling counterparts – which do not require you to turn up their volume to overpower external noise. Then make sure your music’s volume level rarely, if ever, exceeds 60% of the device’s maximum volume.

Next, take off your headphones after you have used them for an hour – you might want to follow the 60/60 rule described above. The last thing you can do to prevent your headphones from damaging ears is never to increase the volume beyond a safe and comfortable level.

Is it bad to use headphones every day?

Various health experts have claimed that it’s safe to use headphones every day as long as you’re using them one hour in 24 hours. The limit is placed to ensure that even if your volume level is too high, the limited exposure will save you from any potential hearing loss.

That, however, doesn’t mean that you should blast volume at full speed during that hour. Instead, if you care about your ears, never increase your music’s volume above 60%.

Does sleeping with headphones affect hearing?

Sleeping with headphones won’t affect your hearing, as long as the volume isn’t too high, in which case you won’t be able to sleep in the first place. In fact, studies have shown that listening to relaxing music induces a stress-free response in your body that helps you fall into a deep sleep easily.

What’s more, when we listen to music that we like, our brain release dopamine, a.k.a. the happy hormone. This natural chemical helps us feel good about ourselves. As a result, with no self-effacing thoughts to distract us, we can achieve shut-eye quickly.

Why do my ears hurt after wearing headphones for a long time?

Here are two reasons why your ear may heart after wearing headphones:

  • Static Electricity: In certain environmental conditions, the air gets very dry, and your body experiences a slight static every time it touches another object, in our case, the headphones touching your outer ear. This is a natural phenomenon and poses no safety issues.
  • Listener Fatigue: When your eardrums are working hard to capture the volume coming at them via the ear canal, they tend to get fatigued. This feeling of fatigue, often caused by hearing music at high volume, can be rectified by lowering the volume.

Can headphones cause tinnitus?

Loud noises coming out of headphones can both cause tinnitus and make the problem worse. One Swedish study connected the dots between turning up the volume level of headphones and an increased risk of experiencing tinnitus.

The study shows that you don’t have to avoid using headphones altogether to minimize your risk of developing tinnitus. Follow the tips mentioned above (low volume level, 60/60 rule, etc.), avoid listening to music at high volume or for too long, and you’d be good.

Are headphones or earphones better for your ears?

Outside-the-ear headphones are better for your ears than earphones because they sit at a considerable distance from the ear canal. Unlike the earphones which squirt music directly into your ear and have no buffer between the music and the ear canal.

Another reason why headphones are better for your ears lies in their ability to block out external noise, in contrast to earphones which aren’t as good at passively blocking external noise. With headphones blocking the ambient sounds, you can hear your favorite tracks at a low volume.

Which headphones are safe for ears?

Noise-cancelling headphones are the safest options for your ears, especially if you listen to your favorite tracks or podcasts while commuting. They prevent outside noise from entering your ear, thereby saving you the trouble of increasing the volume to drown out ambient noises.

Are noise-cancelling headphones bad for your ears?

Noise-cancelling headphones are perfectly safe for your ears. You can verify this claim from the fact that the active noise cancellation (ANC) technology was invented primarily for pilots. It kept their ears safe against the jarring sounds coming out of their planes’ engines.

Then why do some people experience pain in their ears when they turn ANC on? New York Times has provided us with the answer. When we turn on ANC, it ‘cancels’ the noise around us by generating its opposite (or phase-reversed) version into drivers built inside the headphones.

This creates a shift of pressure in our ears. However, the brain, which monitors the air pressure in our ears at all times, may take this shift as decompression. It then sends a signal to our eardrums that something is sucking them out, even though they’re perfectly okay. Hence the pain.

This phenomenon is known as “eardrum suck” and it only lasts a few minutes. People who experience it, who are in a tiny minority, have to do nothing to make it go away. It’s psychosomatic (irrational) and will go away on its own.

Conclusion

There are multiple facts that we have been able to establish in this article. First, headphones can cause hearing loss, especially if you use them for hours after turning up their volume level. Second, they can cause and exacerbate tinnitus and might also cause noise-induced hearing loss.

That’s where the bad news ends. The good news is that you don’t have to throw away your headphones to keep yourself safe from all the dangers described above. Instead, just follow the precautions described above, and you’ll be safe.

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