You live in a big city, which means you spend 75 percent of your day with earbuds lodged in your external auditory meatus. You listen to podcasts on the subway, and queue up a Spotify playlist to stay focused amidst your workplace’s open office plan. After work you exercise to the sweet sounds of EDM and bass-heavy pop, and then commute home to NPR updates. Finally in for the night, you might log into HBO Go and, so as not to disturb your roommate, plug in your buds and snuggle up with your laptop. As you take out your sweat-encrusted earbuds and put them on the nightstand, you wonder: Are you damaging your hearing by spending most of your waking hours with two miniature speakers stuffed in your ears?
What kind of sounds lead to hearing loss?
In 2015, the World Health Organization issued a statement echoing your mom, warning that 1.1 billion young people are at risk of permanent hearing loss due to loud music from personal devices and the decibel levels at events. The WHO analyzed data from studies in “middle- and high-income countries” and found that almost 50 percent of residents 12 to 35 were exposed to unsafe noise levels from personal devices like smart phones and iPods, and 40 percent got a potentially damaging earful at venues like bars, nightclubs, sports stadiums and concert spaces.
How loud is too loud? The WHO said that noise levels of more than 85 decibels were dangerous during an eight-hour duration, like a work shift, and 100 decibels shouldn’t be endured for more than 15 minutes.
“There are no specific tests or measurements for earbuds, but the rules are the same,” says Richard Nass, an ear, nose, and throat specialist and clinical associate professor at the NYU School of Medicine. The proximity of the noise source is not a known factor for hearing loss; the main factors are decibel level and duration, Nass says. “I’d say 80 [decibels] is the cutoff” for when a person should limit exposure, Nass added.
Examples of noises that reach 80 decibels include a blender, a household garbage disposal, an average factory floor, or a freight train passing by from 15 meters away. Hundred-decibel-level sounds include a motorcycle, farm tractor or jackhammer at close proximity, or a commercial aircraft coming in for landing at one nautical mile away. So if you have something that sounds that loud coming through your earbuds—like thrash metal or a Game of Thrones battle scene or Jim Cramer—you should turn down the volume or limit your time listening. An MP3 played at maximum volume through earbuds can reach 105 decibels.
Also, like most bodily systems, the auditory system has ways of letting one know it’s in distress: If you have ringing in your ears or temporary threshold shift—short-term hearing loss after exposure to a loud noise—you're overdoing it.
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How can you tell if you're damaging your hearing?
Noise-related hearing loss is real, affecting somewhere between 10 and 24 percent of Americans to some degree, according to the National Institutes of Health. Perpetual exposure to sirens, industrial noise and high-volume music venues—particularly without earplugs or other precautions—can permanently damage nerves, sensory hair cells and other bits of the auditory system. It takes a lot of willful exposure to MP3s to mirror that kind of impact, but it’s possible, and people may pile that noise onto others in a sound-cluttered environment.
People tend to become aware that they’ve done damage that can’t be undone when their environment sounds muted, but people around them can hear just fine. “It’s when you can’t hear the TV when everyone else can and are asking other people to speak up,” Nass says. For those who’ve developed permanent damage, modern hearing aids vary widely in complexity and invasiveness to counter hearing loss of varying severity and to respond to damage in different parts of the ear.
Recently, audiologists have become concerned about “hidden hearing loss,” damage to fibers in the auditory nerves, the specific subsystem of the auditory system that helps people hear in loud environments. This type of hearing loss, discovered in 2009, doesn’t diminish one’s ability to hear individual sounds and specific conversations, which is the basis for most traditional hearing-loss tests.
A 2015 study from Massachusetts Eye and Ear demonstrates how “hidden hearing loss” works. Volunteers came from two groups: college music students, exposed to loud sounds for hours on end many days, and students majoring in subjects like science and communications. All did well on a typical hearing test, which had them perceive varying tones isolated in an otherwise quiet room. But the music students struggled more often when trying to ferret out words when background noise or echoes were present.
Electrodes measuring how each volunteer’s auditory nerve responded to sounds confirmed that the music students had less activity in their nerves than the students who weren’t continually doused with sound as part of their curriculum. (Studies of mice also show that exposure to continually loud environments also damaged their auditory nerve fibers.) This research could have dire implications for people continually exposed to loud music.
Urbanites have a habit of putting in their earbuds and cranking the volume to block out street noise and other irritating aspects of the metropolitan cacophony. This can mean they are exposing their ears to a harmful build-up while thinking they are soothing themselves with music. This is a bad habit, says Rivka Strom, director of audiology at Advanced Hearing NY, a hearing loss treatment clinic in Brooklyn. Think of the subway, Strom says. “Trains are loud. People are talking. People are playing instruments. So any individual increasing their volume [on a personal device] is risking their hearing.”
But unless you're being egregious with the volume, you're probably fine.
While there is evidence that continual exposure to loud noises causes hearing loss, researchers have not correlated earbud or headphone use specifically to it.
You would think that if this mode of listening was dangerous, there would be more hearing loss in the general population in the years after the introduction of a game-changing device, like the Walkman or iPod—that kids who grew up riding to school with AC/DC and Public Enemy or shuffling between Outkast and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs while jogging would have increased rates of hearing loss. This hasn’t been the case.
A study from various University of California campuses that included surveys of more than 7,000 participants collected from 1988 to 2010 found that there was no increase in hearing loss among the adolescent sect over those 22 years, despite the ubiquity of Walkman-like devices and then portable CD and MP3 players.
Another study from the National Institutes of Health analyzed hearing-test data from adults aged 20 to 69 years—before age-related hearing loss becomes a major factor—in 2011 and 2012 and compared it to data collected from 1999 to 2004. (Between the two data sets, ads featuring dancing silhouettes convinced everyone they needed an iPod and smart phones transformed everyday life.) Based on results from 3,831 participants, the study authors found that hearing loss had declined by about two percentage points over the years.
We keep adding devices that pipe music directly into our ears into our technological arsenals, but they don’t seem to increase hearing loss rates.
Still, your mom would appreciate it if you exercised some caution.
One should have noise-cancelling headphones, which act of both a noise barrier and noise source, if they are trying not just to listen to their iTunes selection, Strom says, but also escape the auditory onslaught around them.
It’s generally safe to ease the overload of city life through earbuds. Just make sure not to stack that sound on other loud noises and don’t crank the volume to insane levels. Does your daily regimen of earbud audio sound as loud as a piece of industrial equipment up close? Do you hear ringing or have periods when your ears seemed burned out and you can’t hear normally? If so, turn down the volume or take a break from the Slayer discography.
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