Headphones are the perfect solution to listening to high-quality audio without the rest of the world listening to us and they have become an essential part of everyday life. However, wearing headphones for prolonged periods of time can lead to negative side effects that can seriously impact our health and hearing. Like most things, headphones are perfectly fine within moderation, and as long as your headphone use is within a certain limit, you can keep your hearing in top shape without sacrificing your personal listening device.
Negative Effects of Headphones on Hearing
The most obvious damage that headphones can do to you is by creating temporary or permanent hearing loss when not used correctly. Our inner ear is made up of very small, hairlike cells that communicate sound to our nerves and then our brain, and this canal is a very sensitive place. Prolonged noise can damage these cells and even the nerves, creating hearing loss. In-ear headphones sit directly in this canal, creating a tight seal that blasts sound directly into your ear if the volume is up too loud, which is why it is important to monitor your headphone volume and use.
Other Negative Effects of Headphones
Not only can headphones damage your hearing, there is a myriad of other side effects that are overlooked but still very serious. The most obvious side effect of long-term headphone use is ear pain or soreness from wearing the device. While this doesn’t usually lead to long-term damage, it can be annoying, painful, and thankfully can be avoided with less usage. On a more serious note, headphones can create an increased pressure in your ear canal which can lead to dizziness and nausea.
Hyperacusis is also caused by prolonged headphone use which can make you especially sensitive to sounds around you and may make you more vulnerable to loud noises and hearing damage. For in-ear headphone users, ear infections and earwax buildup are huge concerns as these devices seal in any bacteria that may fester and cause more serious issues that may require medical attention. By jamming earwax into your ear, you are further muffling your hearing abilities which may cause you to blast your music even louder and cause damage. With over-the-ear headphones, this isn’t as much of a concern. While these effects aren’t always apparent, they should be very taken seriously when taking into account prolonged headphone use.
How Much Headphone Use is Too Much
The time you spend listening to music or other audio all depends on the volume at which you’re listening to it. The CDC states that you should not listen to any audio over 110 decibels or dB. Most headphones range from 85 dB to 115 dB, which means that you should never listen to your headphones at maximum volume as this can cause permanent damage in as little as five minutes.
Levels above 85 dB can cause damage in about two hours, and anything around 70 dB is unlikely to cause any significant hearing damage. For reference, 70 dB is the volume of a normal conversation, so keeping your headphones at the lowest volume that still allows you to hear your music is always the best way to go. Be sure to monitor how long you have been listening, even if it’s at low volume, and take frequent breaks if you are using headphones for long periods of time.
Ways to Monitor Your Headphone Use
It’s easy to get carried away with turning our headphones up too loud for too long, but there are ways to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves (and our hearing). The first is the ringing test. Take a two or three-day break from listening to your music then get some earplugs, sit in a quiet room for a few minutes, and focus on what you hear. There should be a mild ringing sound in your ears which is normal and should be used as your baseline.
Then resume listening as you normally would the next day and repeat the exercise. If you notice a louder ringing sound, then you are playing your music too loud and for too long. If you’re unsure how loud is too loud, take off your headphones and hold them out in front of you. If you can hear the audio well, your music is too loud. You can also ask a friend to sit next to you while you listen and if they can hear your music well, once again, it’s too loud. Look out for a persistent ringing in your ears or inner ear pain which can also be indicators of hearing damage.
While there is no hard and fast limit for how much headphone use is too much, it is important to keep your listening in moderation to keep your hearing in the best shape possible. Along with these tips, be sure to monitor your hearing and how you feel after each listening session to ensure that you aren’t causing too much damage. As always, if you have any concerns about your hearing or headphone use, contact your doctor or otolaryngologist.
Written by Sophia Schultz