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As we spend more time listening in to virtual meetings, taking virtual classes, or just utilizing headphones more during the Covid-19 pandemic, there may be unintended damage being done to our ears. Constantly being plugged in while sheltering in place or turning up the volume to not get distracted by family members can have a long-term impact on your hearing. Even the best wireless earbuds for working at home can potentially contribute to other issues, such as headaches and ear pain, and you might not even realize it.
“I’ve actually seen a number of patients who have noticed changes in their hearing, likely as a result of using their earbuds for prolonged hours while working,” says Dr. Erich Voigt, Associate Professor of Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery, and Director of the Division of General – Sleep Otolaryngology at NYU Langone Health. This includes some children, who he says have come in with new-onset tinnitus or a sense of ear-clogging because they were using earbuds at loud volumes. “In particular, in some of the classrooms, the kids were yelling and screaming. Those loud, blasting sounds can really damage the hearing. So it is actually a phenomenon we’re seeing.”
Experts say it’s beginning to seem clear that your hearing can be affected even within your own home— and not just from noise pollution while commuting, or being up against the speaker at a rock concert. But that doesn’t mean you should pull the plug just yet. We talked to experts about how your earbud usage might be affecting your overall ear health, what the best headphones for volume control are, and precautions you can take to save yourself from some long-term ear problems if you have to use your buds a little more often now. Note: we’re not medical experts, so if you’re experiencing sudden-onset hearing loss or intense ear pain, consider seeing a medical professional such as an ENT or an audiologist for an evaluation.
Can Wearing Headphones Cause Hearing Loss?
Can wearing headphones or earbuds lead to hearing loss? The short answer: yes. But the longer answer? It depends on a variety of factors after you put in your earbuds. “Headphones and earbuds have the potential to cause harm as they can generate very loud volumes for potentially extended periods of time, and they are very close to your ears,” says Elliott D. Kozin, MD, a Neurotologist and Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery at Massachusetts Eye and Ear at Harvard Medical School. “Hearing damage from noise is due to three factors,” he explains: “loudness of the sound, duration of listening, and distance from your ears. The combination of these factors,” Kozin says, “creates the potential risk of hearing loss.”
Part of why headphones can cause hearing loss these days, is that portable music devices have updated over the years to adapt to the higher qualities of digitized sound, says Voigt. “With old auditory devices, when the sound got too loud, the music didn’t sound very good. The bass would be distorted [and] it wouldn’t sound right, so you would naturally lower the volume. But now, with all the digitized sound, you can go up on the volume, and it’s so high-quality it doesn’t distort the sound.”
Voigt says this means you’re probably rocking out to tunes much louder than in the seventies, eighties or nineties. “People are listening at much higher volumes, and we know it’s a real phenomenon that people lose hearing naturally,” he says. “But the more noise you’re exposed to, the faster you’re going to lose those frequencies, and that perception of sound.”
Can Wearing Earbuds Cause Hearing Loss?
The advancement in earbud technology is also partially to blame for potential hearing loss, claims Voigt. Earbuds, unlike headphones, strongly focus the sound energy directly into the eardrums. “If the volume’s loud, the sound energy can be much louder at the eardrum than if you’re using over-the-ear headphones, or just by listening to ambient sound in a room,” he explains. “Sudden loud noises we know can cause hearing damage, as well as prolonged loud noise.”
That means even if you think you’ve lowered the volume enough, Voigt says the sound from your earbuds might be much louder directed at your eardrum than you realize. “Say you’re listening to the radio or music from a stereo, and you don’t have earbuds in, you can hear them fine. But when you put the earbuds in directly, you’re focusing all the soundwaves directly into the ear. You might be getting more decibels than you think.”
If you’re worried about protecting your hearing, it’s good to invest in earbuds that let you get high-quality sound without having to turn up the volume to block environmental noise around you. Yamaha/s TW-E3A True Wireless Earbuds have built-in “Listening Care” technology, which keeps the full range of high and low sound frequencies even, particularly on lower volume settings. One of the most intelligent sound equalization settings we’ve seen, you won’t have to crank the sound and potentially do damage while listening to your favorite artists, or during work-related voice calls.
In the era of virtual meetings, Kozin says, it’s a little too early to know if prolonged use of headphones or earbuds during meetings will negatively impact your hearing health, though. “Unlike music, which is generally continuous, discussion-based meetings tend to have natural pauses with periods of silence during conversations and meetings. These pauses allow ‘breaks’ for our ears,” he says. But even if you’re sheltering in place, you may be overdoing the volume in order to compensate for other sounds in your home. “It is important to note that individuals in noisy environments, such as at home with a TV on in the background or kids playing, may actually be listening at higher-than-expected volumes to hear over the background noise.”
How Long Can You Wear Earbuds For?
The best earbuds are great for both noise isolation and for music, and can help you get your work done, or at least get some peace and quiet for a few hours. But how long with earbuds in is too long? “The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health provides safety guidelines about loudness levels and duration of listening. Human conversations typically occur at about 60-70 decibels,” says Kozin. “As the volume increases, the time necessary to cause potential damage decreases. Concerts or sporting events often are greater than 100 decibels, and there is potential risk in about 15 minutes. It is worth noting that although a small device, headphones and earbuds have the potential to reach 110 or more decibels depending on the volume settings.”
Kozin says that as long as you keep the volume low, feel free to keep those buds in a little longer. “If you are listening at a relatively low volume, you could listen for hours without any concerns for hearing loss. However, if you are listening to something at a high volume, then you may be at risk in a much shorter period of time.”
Can Wearing Headphones Cause Headaches?
If you’re walking around all day sporting wireless earbuds crammed in your ears, you might be affecting more than just your hearing. Voigt says that earbuds made from harder material can press up against the bone and the front of the ear canal, or the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). “The presence of a hard earbud in that area pressing against the jaw joint causes people to get ear pain, TMJ pain, and headaches,” he says.
But even though over-the-ear headphones have a band around your head, they may not be the cause of your pounding headache. “With [over-the-ear headphones] that’s a little less likely to happen, because you’re not putting something into that hole,” he explains. “With something that goes into the ear hole, you’re making kind of an airtight seal, and something that goes over your entire ear won’t be as tight. There’s more of a space for air and humidity exchange.”
So if you find yourself reaching for a painkiller after hours with earbuds in, it might be time to switch to a pair of solid over-the-ear headphones. Soundcore by Anker’s Life Q30 wireless headphones gives you the best of both worlds when it comes to volume control and comfort. For all-day wear, the ultra-soft ear cushions and headband come with memory foam padding that fit snugly over your ears but won’t constrict or tighten. Not only are they lightweight, but the hybrid active noise cancellation has distinct Indoor, Outdoor, Travel, and Transparency modes, so you can adjust the volume to your own surroundings with ease. Soundcore also has your ear health in mind, stating “in order to protect your hearing, Life Q30’s maximum volume has been set to around 95dB.”
Can Wearing Earbuds Cause Ear Infections?
Another unintended side effect of consistent earbud usage? Heightening your risk of ear infections. “When you’re placing something into your ear for a prolonged period of time, you’re actually really changing the environment of the ear canal,” says Voigt. “The ear canal, once it’s blocked off, is going to get warmer. It’s going to get more humid, because it’s holding in your body’s humidity. That is an environment where people will get outer ear infections.”
The best way to avoid this is by regularly cleaning out the grime and gunk from the inside of your earbuds, or wiping down the outside ear cushions on your headphones with a microfiber cloth to absorb any excess oils that build up. “When using headphones or earbuds, consider placing them with clean hands so there is less of a chance of introducing bacteria or other pathogens into the ear,” says Kozin.
The CDC recommends regularly disinfecting your smaller electronics anyway in regards to Covid-19 transmission. So if you’re wondering how to clean your earbuds and headphones, there are kits you can buy with small tools, or you can just carefully use cotton swabs and alcohol.
You should also make sure earbuds or headphones fit properly, says Kozin. “They should not hurt,” he cautions. “If they do cause any pain, you may consider trying a different style or brand that may better fit your specific ear anatomy.”
What Are the Best Headphones With Volume Control?
So we’ve established that volume control is key, but if you have a job where you just can’t get away from using headphones all day, you can at least set yourself up to do the least damage possible to your ears. “Notably, some studies have found that hearing devices with noise-cancellation features allow individuals to listen at lower volumes, since background noise is muted,” says Kozin. Active noise-canceling headphones can use technology to either block out sounds similar to the way earplugs would, or process out sound waves from outside noise.
Sony’s WH-1000XM4 headphones are the king of this latter method of noise cancellation, featuring two microphones on each earcup that capture ambient sound and balance your noise levels in real time, adjusting to a range of environments. The additional microphones also means more isolated, crisper sound while talking on the phone, and an overall reduction of loud high-frequency sounds that might be more damaging. If you’re looking for the most adaptive sound control on the market, these headphones are the way to go.
Voigt recommends that your first step should always be setting your volume controls before you plug in. “When you’re setting up your device—whether it’s your computer or your phone—you [should] put the volume to zero first before you use it,” he says, “as opposed to having it already be on with the volume maxed, where you’ll get an unexpected blast of sound.” He says you should then adjust the volume to where it is audible and comfortable, but not too loud. “There are volume threshold controls on devices such as the iPhone where you can set your phone and it won’t get too loud, like dimming the light or brightness,” he explains; “You can control that.”
Of course you can always manually turn the volume down — but can a particular kind of headphone protect your hearing, or at least minimize the damage? The best headphones for sound control have highly-adjustable volume controls, or at the very least, maximum volume settings. “If you need to use earbuds or headphones, many smart devices and computers have functions that can automatically limit the maximum volume. This may decrease the chance that the volume is high enough to cause harm,” says Kozin.
We love PuroPro’s Hybrid Active Noise Cancelling Headphones, which automatically limit the volume to between an 85dB and 95dB max to protect your ears against permanent hearing damage. PuroPro says on their site that 85dB “allows for up to eight hours of safe listening while 95dB allows the user to safely listen for 50 minutes.” But that doesn’t mean they skimp on the sound, with 40mm dynamic drivers that provide clear, full vocals and bass, all within the volume limits, so you won’t feel like you’re missing out on studio-quality audio.
Can’t really part with your buds? The best wireless earbuds for protecting your hearing should also have smart, personalized sound. NuraLoop Wireless Bluetooth Earbuds come with the Nura app that creates an individualized listening profiling, manually adjusting the volume, bass, and treble tones based on how you hear. These earbuds will let you get the most out of your listening experience while not completely blowing out your upper listening frequencies. They also come with two active noise cancellation modes, and we’ve found that they’re superior at blocking out everything but your music for truly immersive sound quality within the volume limits.
The silver lining here is that healthy headphone use is possible. As well as setting your earbuds or headphones to safe hearing levels, Voigt says you should know when to take a break too. “You should give yourself—and really, any part of your body that is being utilized—breaks,” he says. “When people are reading at a computer screen all day, they can get a lot of eye strain and a lot of tension headaches between their eyes, so it’s a good idea to stop looking at the computer screen, look around the room, and relax those muscles. Same thing with your earbuds,” he continues. “You don’t want to be stimulating your ear constantly. Take your earbuds out, give yourself a little quiet time, stretch, take a walk, and then get back to work.”