Do earphones and headphones damage ears?

Headphones, earphones: the dangers of too loud music
Last update on Apr, 29, 2022

We use them more and more throughout our day, but do earphones damage ears? Let’s find out. Wireless earphones have been on the market for a number of years and, as a result, in our daily lives, which is why there are already lots of studies focused on their use. An Australian research conducted by Bond University claims that normal use of these devices does not usually cause any problems but, if used for a long periods, it can cause various upsets.

Excessive use of headphones in our lives

Headphones and earphones have become fundamental and indispensable companions, helping us to tackle all kinds of phone calls in complete freedom. There are two main types of headphone wearers: those who love headphones that are positioned above the ear, without inserting them in the ear, and those who prefer in-ear headphones, which are introduced directly into the ear. Apart from this differentiation, based on the preferences of those who use them, these are the various types of headphones:

  • open headphones: these headphone have a perforated surface that guarantees a good sound dispersion and a lower sound pressure inside the ear. Thanks to this, the volume can be augmented, while always maintaining the precaution not to increase it excessively in order to try to contrast the background noise coming from the environment.
  • closed headphones: these headphones provide good insulation from ambient noise, thanks to its bearings. It is possible to use them without excessively raising the volume, thus relieving the auditory stress that is caused by loud noise. 
  • In-ear headphones: these headphones guarantee a partial isolation from outside noise, more than closed headphones, as they are inserted directly into the ear. According to experts, it is always good not to use them by excessive volumes and for a prolonged period of time, to avoid annoying problems. 

In recent years the use of headphones has increased exponentially. The possibility to remote work has led us to use them even at times when they were not necessary, whereas before they would only be used to hold conference calls or business meetings. This practice, often extended throughout the day, has lead to a more continious and constant use even during the evening and in bed. 

Covid-19 pandemic and remote-working risks for our ears

Covid and smart working have become an inseparable pair in recent years, in which physical distance has always been a main focus. It is undeniable that in the pandemic, there was a significant increase in the use of headphones for conference calls, even among those who used them only sporadically. This phenomenon has involved not only adults but also the younger generation, forced to take lessons online and replace the evening out with a video call. As a consequence, the earphones have also become an indispensable good, for domestic tranquility and privacy. In a remote working environment, we are therefore all more exposed to loud noise caused by headphones and earphones that have become the only way to share space in the house, allowing us to do complete all our tasks in peace. Experts argue that the risks to hearing depend mainly on two factors:

  • the duration of exposure to sound;
  • the intensity of noise.

However, contrary to popular belief, it is not the second factor that affects people the most. It is the first: a prolonged and lasting exposure can in fact lead to serious hearing damage, especially if accompanied by behavioral disorders such as stress, fatigue, nervousness and loss of concentration.

Danger of headphones on hearing

Are wireless headphones dangerous? And, most importantly, what is the correlation between headphones and hearing damage? Many studies have shown that the main problem related to the hearing damage resulting from headphones is due to prolonged use, as well as excessive volume. This applies to all age groups: adults and young children, employed in different activities, but united in the same behavior. The effects of prolonged exposure to increasingly loud noise can lead to trauma caused by auditory stress. Those who are affected complain of various symptoms:

The symptoms described can be temporary but, especially if not timely diagnosed, can become permanent. The auditory apparatus is able to resist very well to acoustic pressures, even prolonged, so oftentimes we do not notice that the presence of damage can become permanent. 

Therefore, the factors that contribute to stress of the auditory apparatus are many: the time spent with earphones and its prolonged, daily in-ear use. All these points can cause real permanent damage. So, it is always good to be careful, avoiding as much as possible a continuous use of the headphones.

Are Airpods and Bluetooth dangerous?

There is often a false rumor about the correlation between bluetooth and poor health. These beliefs became popular following some doubts that spread in the scientific community in 2015 about the fact that airpods are dangerous for our health: in an appeal published in the journal Medium, 247 scientists from 42 countries were concerned about the excessive exposure to electromagnetic fields caused by bluetooth devices.

In the following years, however, no scientific evidence has come to surface to support this thesis: recent studies have shown that the radiation generated by Bluetooth devices is less dangerous than those emitted by smartphones. In general, the emission of electromagnetic waves is so low that it is irrelevant. In fact, the Bluetooth protocol uses the same frequency bands as the 2.4 GHz wi-fi, but with a lower power.  

Therefore, a healthy use of wireless headphones, not prolonged in time, does not hurt our health, or at least does not have a more negative effect than the one caused by other wireless devices.

Acceptable decibel sound level

To isolate ourselves from external sounds and noises, when traveling or on vehicles, people turn up the volume in their headphones or earphones. The limit for headphone/earphone volume for portable CD players has been set at 100 decibels. However, headphones sold individually can exceed this limit. To make the comparison clearer, here are the decibel levels of common sounds: 110-120 decibels is the sound power of a chainsaw in action or a jet in takeoff, while the sound of the human voice reaches 30-40 decibels.

In addition, we must say that the decibel scale is a logarithmic scale so, for each increment of 10 decibels, the power of the sound is multiplied by 10. Moreover, studies show that the recommended intensity level should not exceed 85 decibels for a maximum of 8 hours during the day: at a level of 100 decibels, the damage could come after only 15 minutes.

Effects of loud noise on health

Loud noise can cause problems not only related to the hearing system, but more generally to the whole body: acoustic trauma caused by loud noise can involve:

  • muffled ear after loud noise
  • increased blood pressure,
  • heart disorders,
  • stress and sleep disorders.

If it is true that there is no specific age for the manifestation of these problems, it is likely that children may suffer more problems.

Effects of headphones on the brain?

Music has numerous positive effects on the body, all widely documented by studies. Music can slow down the heartbeat, respiratory rate, sweating, muscle tension, relax the autonomic nervous system, and assist in pain-reducing dynamics. However, music can also have negative side effects if it is listened to at intense sound levels, especially if it lasts a long period of time and using in-ear headphones.

However, it is not possible to state that headphones are bad for the brain, because in fact the brain is not directly affected. There are indirect ways that headphones can have a negative impact on brain. An example that goes in this direction is related to the studies that headphone radiation has on the brain, although, as anticipated before, nothing has yet been proven. 

Currently, many people are not aware of the psychological effects that headphones can cause: although research is still ongoing, there are studies that have highlighted its impact on the brain: a slower cognitive process that leads to a consequent lower attention span and reduced verbal abilities as well as psychological effects caused by audio distortion. Listening to loud music can trigger addictive behaviors that can cause harmful effects on the cochlea, an internal component of the ear.

Effect of headphones on the health of our ears

Earphones can affect not only our hearing, but also the proper functioning of our ears. In fact, when people complain of ear pain from headphones, especially children, they say phrases such as "headphones hurt my ears". Wearing headphones all day does not leave your ears without consequences. Some of the various side effects include:  

  • compressed earwax: headphones make the earwax less fluid and, consequently, more difficult to expel; 
  • blockage of the earwax that, compacting, can also cause inflammation: the production of earwax is a normal process for the ears because it protects against bacteria, insects and prevents infections but its stagnation can be extremely painful; 
  • air circulation obstruction: normally the air prevents the drying of wet wax and promotes its spontaneous release;
  • sweat retention and moisture in the ears, making them more prone to bacterial and fungal infections: by inserting a foreign body such as headphones, ears are exposed to an increased risk of damage and infection;
  • creation of a barrier that hinders the natural expulsion of cerumen which stimulates secretion glands and increases the production of earwax;
  • reduction of general ear hygiene: this is further amplified if the earbuds are not cleaned properly or if they are contaminated with bacteria or infectious agents.

What solutions against the excessive use of headphones?

Avoiding headphones altogether for fear of hearing-related problems is not a good solution. Instead, it is best to take small precautions and follow a few tips and tricks on how to avoid excessive or incorrect use of headphones. Let's see some below.

Some best practices to adopt

Some habits can help to set up a proper routine for our hearing devices. For instance, it is always good to:

  • vary the sound listening mode: not only of headphones and earphones, but also portable speakers, as well as directly from the computer in natural remote listening mode;
  • moderate the volume and duration of listening: experts recommend using the volume at half the maximum capacity, defined as the safe listening threshold. Smartphones and other audio devices come with special features that can measure exposure levels and notify users when they are at risk of hearing loss right away. Help can also come from applications available on smartphones that display decibel intensity levels and indicate whether exposure to this noise level presents a risk;
  • provide ears the necessary recovery time;
  • use "psychoacoustic" settings on smartphones: from research come practical solutions for our health, In fact, engineers have developed a mode of sound processing that allows users to experience the same sensations heard through a loud listening even at a lower volume.

Noise canceling headphones

Noise cancelling headphones use the advanced technology of active noise reduction to cancel the sound that comes around the person who uses them, whatever it is: city traffic noise, crowded office, local noise. The headphones can reduce the background sounds up to 92%, allowing you to focus only on the music you are listening to, the conversation you are having or the movie you are watching.

Noise cancelling headphones are an interesting solution because they prevent a common attitude in many people who, to counteract the background noise, tend to raise the volume of the devices. Obviously, these headphones, however effective, tend to reduce ambient noise, not to erase it completely: they do not allow to get away from the surrounding environment, you have to imagine like a background buzz.

Bone Conduction Headphones

Bone conduction headphones, unlike normal headphones, use the skull bones to propagate sound by emitting small vibrations on the bones between the jaw and the mandible, close to the ear, leaving it free at the same time to hear the sounds coming from the surrounding environment. These types of headphones can lead to a complete isolation from what is around you, which is why they are widely used by runners. The benefits are many: 

  • they do not damage the eardrums and do not obstruct the ear canal, thus avoiding problems with the apparatus; 
  • by transmitting the sound directly to the cochlea, they can be a good solution for people with hearing problems or with tinnitus, because they avoid creating a resonance chamber that could accentuate the problem.

How long should I wear my headphones per day?

The 60-60 rule, simple and easy to remember, can help us prevent onset hearing problems. This rule dictates 60 minutes of headphone use, at a volume equal to 60% of the maximum of the device. It is always good to remember that the louder the volume, the shorter the listening time should be, so a brief pause, maybe 15 minutes, can help avoid overexposure.

How to know if you have hearing damage?

Headphones and hearing damage are often seen as related. However, to avoid major problems, it is best to pay close attention to signals that may alterting you of a more important disorder. The main ones are: 

  • the volume of the TV or music player is never high enough;
  • you constantly ask the people you are talking to repeat what they just said;
  • you have difficulty understanding telephone conversations;
  • it is difficult to understand conversations in noisy environments. 

An auditory screening is a good starting point to assess whether you actually suffer from a hearing impairment and, above all, it is the best to find out your level of deafness, understand its causes and its most suitable treatment.

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