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Hearing Loss Through Headphones

Reading Time: 5 minutes
"by " HearingLife
07/12/2021

Modern life is busy. It doesn’t leave a lot of time. Every day, those of us who commute pack ourselves onto the subway and into buses. At home, we go for long walks or jogs to exercise. We clean our houses or apartments. In between, we go shopping or run errands.

So, what do we do? For some of us, we put on headphones — pop in our earbuds — and play our favorite albums, podcasts, or music. We take a little piece of our inner world along with us while we do the things we need to.

But is all that noise right next to (or inside) our ears safe? Is that constant exposure doing any damage? How loud is too loud when listening to music through earphones?

If you have or understand hearing loss, you know the impact hearing impairment can have on one’s health and welfare. But how do you get the message across to those in your life who might not get it? What can those on the cusp of hearing impairment do to protect themselves in the future?

Keep Listening Campaign

This summer, the Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) is launching a coordinated hearing campaign to help raise awareness about the dangers of sound through headphones; how even just a few hours of loud music can lead to permanent damage.

Working with transit authorities in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, the HHF is intent on educating as many people as they can about the short- and long-term consequences of unchecked music levels. Their Keep Listening campaign 1 has a simple message: “Your headphones could be harming your hearing.”

Headphones with grenades replacing cushions, earbuds as power tools: these are just some of the images transit riders can expect to see across cities in the US. Big, bold and attention-grabbing, to be sure. But that’s what’s needed, the HHF implies. Why? Because they want to “sound the warning before it’s too late.” 2 The campaign targets 16- to 35-year-olds — those more likely to play their music at dangerous levels, those possibly unaware of noise-induced hearing loss — in order to help stem the flow of hearing issues in young and middle-aged adults.

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss is on the Rise!

Earphones and earbuds transmit sound directly into the ear canal. If the wearer likes loud music, if they’re compensating for already existing hearing loss, or if the devices are of low quality, they might find themselves turning up the volume. This puts their ears — the parts “vital to healthy hearing” 3, the 18,000 cilia or tiny hair cells — at risk.

The general rule of thumb is that continued exposure to any sound over 85 decibels (dB) can cause permanent hearing damage in a matter of hours to seconds (essentially, the louder the noise, the less time needed). And since most headphones and earbuds cap at around 100 dB, permanent damage can occur in as little as 15 minutes.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is not something anyone should take lightly. For a breakdown of other common, everyday sounds, their danger levels, and the length of time before they begin to affect hearing, the CDC has a helpful guide 4.

Steps to Limit Noise Exposure

What options do your family and friends have?

1. Noise-canceling headphones or earbuds

Devices that create a tight seal over or in the ear to block out ambient sound will allow music to be played at a safer, more comfortable volume. 

2. The 60/60 rule

Music should be played no louder than 60 percent of its maximum volume for no longer than 60 minutes. A break should be taken after an hour to let one’s ears rest and recharge. 5

3. Headphones rather than earbuds

Though headphones can still cause hearing loss when played at loud enough volumes, there is still some buffer between the speakers and the ear canal. If noise-canceling devices are too expensive, over-the-ear headphones may be a better bet.

The Importance of Safe Listening Practices

The Hearing Health Foundation considers hearing loss through headphones a public health emergency, for good reason. Hearing impairment can not only affect the ears, but also lifestyle and overall well-being. It can affect the “brain, heart, and mental health” and lead to “isolation, depression,” and even — later in life — dementia. 2 Hearing loss can forever change one’s interaction with the world. Socializing, working and relaxing can become more difficult than they should ever be.

Awareness is half the battle, and the HHF has been on the front lines for a long time. For over 60 years, 6 the Foundation has not only been working to educate the public on hearing health, but also seeking out treatments for hearing and balance disorders. They put the issue in plain terms: “Nearly one in five teens and young adults already shows signs of hearing loss from excess noise exposure. Hearing loss creeps up on you, so it’s invisible until it isn’t. And once you harm your hearing, it’s for life.” 1

HearingLife agrees and urges anyone at any age to get their hearing tested, especially if they’ve been listening to loud music for as long as they can remember.7

Adjusting Lifestyles

With awareness can come change. Noise-induced hearing loss from personal music devices is entirely preventable, and the more someone knows about its prevalence and dangers, the more quickly they can start practicing healthy hearing habits that will stay with them forever.

The message is simple: it’s never too early to look after your ears. If you have children, grandchildren, siblings or family members without hearing loss, there has never been a better time than the present to let them know your concerns.

1https://hearinghealthfoundation.org/keeplistening

2https://hearinghealthfoundation.org/blogs/keep-listening-ad-campaign-launch

3https://www.healthyhearing.com/report/52503-Headphones-when-hearing-danger-is-closer-than-you-think

4https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/hearing_loss/what_noises_cause_hearing_loss.html

5 https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-clinic-minute-the-60-60-rule-for-safer-listening/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=sm&utm_content=post&utm_campaign=mayoclinic&geo=national&placementsite=enterprise&mc_id=us&cauid=100503&linkId=41975545

6 https://hearinghealthfoundation.org

7https://www.hearinglife.com/hearing-blog/2018/hearing-loss-no-age-requirement