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The Safe Way to Rock Out With Earbuds or Headphones Without Damaging Your Hearing

Noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable

A man wearing a green shirt and sitting at his laptop working while wearing white earbuds

Whether it’s jamming out during a workout session or starting the morning with a podcast, many of us spend time every day with earbuds blasting sound into our ears.

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While these little sonic feeding tubes can ease our minds and moods with satisfying sounds, they can also damage our hearing.

But with a little awareness and effort, it’s possible to prevent that from happening.

Balancing volume with length of listening

“Volume level and length of listening are the two things that need to be balanced to prevent noise-induced (or sound-induced) hearing damage from headphones or earbuds,” according to audiologist Sharon A. Sandridge, PhD.

“Listening at 80% volume for a maximum of 90 minutes at a time is the general rule of thumb,” she says. “It really is an inverse relationship between how long and how loud. If you are listening for an amount of time longer than 90 minutes, the volume should be reduced so that the longer you listen, the lower the volume.”

Types of devices

Aside from volume and length of listening, the particular listening device you’re using can also make a difference.

There are three types of ear listening devices, each with their own benefits and drawbacks.

  • Over-the-ear headphones encase your ear and are often better at canceling outside noise. The better sound quality allows you to listen at a lower volume, too. However, they’re not as portable or convenient to store as earbuds.
  • Earbuds allow more outside noise to enter your ear, which could be safer if you’re outdoors, near traffic or in close quarters with other people. “However, people tend to increase the volume to dangerous levels in areas with a lot of ambient noise,” Dr. Sandridge notes.
  • Isolating earbuds have rubber tips that seal the ear canal. They’re good for blocking outside sounds, but can be dangerous for runners or cyclists who need to be aware of their surroundings.

No matter the design you choose, Dr. Sandridge says people shouldn’t be afraid to spend a little extra for better earpieces.

“Higher quality headphones or earbuds provide a higher fidelity sound, so you are less likely to rely on the volume to enhance the fidelity,” explains Dr. Sandridge.

The reality of hearing loss

Many devices allow outputs to go much higher than 85 decibels (dBs), which can be a problem because many listeners, especially younger ones, don’t realize the long-term damaging effects.

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“Early, repeated exposure to loud sounds results in inner ear damage, which is permanent and may not be experienced until later in life when it is too late to prevent it,” Dr. Sandridge says.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 17% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have hearing loss that may have been caused by exposure to loud sounds.

“Repeated damaging sounds can age the ear 50% faster,” says Dr. Sandridge. So, by the time you’re in your 50s, you may have the hearing of someone who’s in their 80s.

To be safe, Dr. Sandridge offers up this general advice: “If someone who’s standing an arm’s length away can hear the music coming from your headphones or earbuds, or if you raise your voice to speak to someone while you’re listening to something, it’s too loud.”

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