Are Headphones and Earbuds Bad for Your Ears? The Truth Unveiled

A pair of earbuds on a person's hand. (From: Unsplash)
A pair of earbuds on a person’s hand. (From: Unsplash)

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Shedding light on the potential connection between headphones, earbuds, and hearing loss.

Many people rely on headphones and earbuds for private and immersive audio listening.

However, frequent use of such devices at high volumes is believed to cause ear damage and hearing loss.

No worries! With this guide, you can safeguard your ears and hearing by understanding the science behind these claims. So read on for more insights and tips on how to enjoy your audio safely.

Can Headphones and Earbuds Cause Hearing Loss?

Yes, headphones and earbuds can cause noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), but the severity depends on their volume level and listening duration.

Any loud sound can harm your ears, regardless of the source. But since headphone and earbud speakers are closer to the ears than most external sources, the intensity of the sound is amplified.

Thus, prolonged exposure at high volumes can damage the ear’s hair cells, which are essential for transmitting sound to the brain.

Besides hearing loss, prolonged noise exposure leads to conditions like tinnitus. This disorder causes damaged hair cells to send abnormal signals to the brain, leading to phantom ringing or buzzing sounds.

Can Headphones and Earbuds Cause Ear Infections?

Anatomy of the human ear (From: Wikimedia Commons)
Anatomy of the human ear (From: Wikimedia Commons)

Yes, headphones and earbuds can cause or worsen ear infections depending on their cleanliness and if you’re prone to such issues.

While over-ear and on-ear headphones don’t directly cause infections, they can worsen existing ones by blocking airflow. This traps heat and moisture, promoting bacterial and fungal growth.

The same goes for earbuds. However, since they sit further inside the ear canal, earbuds are more likely to trigger new infections if shared with others or seldom cleaned.

When it comes to the question of going with headphones vs. earbuds, over-ear headphones are your safest option.

Can Headphones and Earbuds Cause Ear Pain?

Yes, improperly sized or incorrectly worn headphones and earbuds can cause ear pain.

For instance, if your headphones are too tight or aren’t properly placed over your ears, they create pressure points. This leads to pain radiating towards the inner ear, jaw, and head.

Ill-fitting plastic earbud tips can also chafe and press on ear cartilage, causing discomfort over extended use.

Some individuals may also experience allergic reactions like redness, itchiness, and inflammation due to certain materials used in ear pads or tips.

Can Headphones and Earbuds Cause Vertigo?

Noise-canceling headphones or earbuds may cause benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) in some people.

This happens because noise cancellation creates a pressure change sensation in the ears that can be disorienting. Over time, this can affect the inner ear and balance, leading to sudden dizziness during head movement.

Notably, a 45-year-old woman developed severe BPPV in her right ear after using noise-canceling headphones for 12 hours while sleeping. Fortunately, her vertigo subsided after six weeks.

Are Bluetooth Headphones Safe?

Yes, Bluetooth headphones are safe.

Bluetooth safety concerns stemmed from a 2015 petition signed by 250 scientists linking radiofrequency radiation (RFR) emitting devices to a potential “increased cancer risk.” This has led to the assumption that wireless gadgets like Bluetooth headphones, due to their closeness to the brain, might cause brain tumors. Fortunately, there’s no evidence to support this claim.

Additionally, the non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation (EMR) emitted by Bluetooth has far less energy than the ionizing radiation from X-rays and CT scans, making it harmless to DNA and cells.

Aside from the radiation, the more pressing concern for Bluetooth headphones is their lithium batteries. There have been some rare cases of Bluetooth headphones suddenly self-combusting due to battery issues. The most recent one was a Soundcore 45 headphones burning in a user’s backpack.

How to Use Headphones and Earbuds Without Damaging Your Ears

Misusing your headphones or earbuds can harm your ears, but you can avoid potential problems with the following tips:

Some devices will display warnings that your current volume may be too loud. Don’t ignore these warnings – they indicate you’ve crossed the safe limit.
  • Let your ears rest: Prolonged use of headphones and earbuds, even at 85 dB, can still harm your ears. That said, practice the 60-percent/60-minute rule – if you set the volume at 60 percent, limit your usage to 60 minutes daily.
  • Never share your headphones or earbuds: Sharing personal audio devices can transfer harmful germs to the ears. Earbuds, in particular, pose a higher risk of infection since they sit inside the ear canal.
  • Clean your headphones and earbuds regularly: Dirt accumulation on earbud speaker grills or headphone ear pads can also lead to ear infections. As such, cleaning your devices every 72 hours of use is ideal.
    Feel free to check out our guides for detailed tips on cleaning your headphones and earbuds.
  • Wear your headphones and earbuds correctly: For example, you can’t wear earbuds and in-ear monitors (IEMs) the same way. Earbuds sit on the outer ear, whereas in-ear monitors (IEMs) fit inside the ear canal. So, wearing them interchangeably can cause pain or discomfort.

Correct placement also guarantees a better seal and improved audio quality.

FAQs About Headphone and Earbud Safety

Are headphones safer than earbuds?

No. Headphones and earbuds carry similar hearing loss risks, regardless of the difference in ear placement. The critical factor here is audio volume. So, if you’re listening at high volumes for extended periods with either device, you can still experience ear damage and possible hearing loss.

Are some earbuds safer than others?

Some earbuds may cause allergic reactions due to their materials. For example, several users experienced skin allergies from nickel and acrylates found in the 2021 Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro earbuds. This prompted a class action lawsuit, leading Samsung to offer refunds and medical compensation to affected users.

Will my hearing get better if I stop using headphones or earbuds?

No, hearing loss from loud noise exposure is irreversible, even if you stop using headphones and earbuds. However, reducing their use or lowering the volume can help prevent further damage.

💬 Conversation: 5 comments

  1. Are earbuds bad for your ears? It’s a question that concerns many of us who love our music but worry about our hearing. While earbuds can potentially pose risks if used improperly or at excessively high volumes, there are steps you can take to protect your ears. One of the best ways is to invest in high-quality Noise cancelling ear plugs that have noise-canceling or noise-isolating features. These help block external noises, allowing you to enjoy your music at lower, safer volumes. Remember, prioritizing your ear health is crucial, and with the right precautions, you can continue to enjoy your favorite tunes without harm.

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