The dangers of loud–and dirty–earbuds and headphones

We live in a noisy world. The ear-splitting sounds of rush-hour traffic, the drone of a lawn mower, loud washing machines and vacuum cleaners, blaring TVs and computers—all of these loud noises and more can blast at us wherever we go. 

These everyday noises can do more than annoy us. They can put us in danger of hearing loss. Until recently, most researchers believed work-related exposure to loud noises was the greatest risk for noise-induced hearing loss, or hearing loss caused by loud noises. But as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in February 2017, more than half of people who had noise-induced hearing loss reported no exposure to loud noises at work. Schedule regular hearing checkups to minimize your risk for hearing loss.

These findings mean hearing damage is coming from other environmental factors. And it’s not just unpleasant sounds that can damage our hearing. Standard headphones and earbuds at full volume are about as loud as a chainsaw. Just like other loud noises, we need to limit our exposure to loud sounds from earbuds and headphones to protect our hearing.

The science of sound

The subject of earbuds and headphones is controversial among hearing health specialists like me. Some people believe earbuds are more dangerous than headphones because earbuds rest inside the ear, while earphones rest over the ear.

It’s not an issue of the earbuds being more dangerous. What matters is the intensity of the sound the ear is exposed to. We measure the intensity of sound in decibels. Higher decibel levels mean sound is more intense. And more intense sounds are more dangerous to your ears.

Normal, comfortable sounds range from about 30 to 60 decibels. A 60-decibel sound is about the same as a normal conversation. Sounds at these levels don’t pose a threat to your hearing. But sounds that are higher than this on the decibel scale get much more intense very quickly—and much louder.

Each 10-level jump in decibels translates to sound intensity that’s 10 times as strong and about twice as loud. Music at 100 decibels is 10,000 times more intense and 16 times louder than a 60-decibel conversation

Regular exposure to sounds with a high decibel level can have a damaging effect to your hearing over time. Sounds at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss, particularly if you’re exposed to them for long periods.

Many commercially available earbuds and headphones, even those marketed for children, go above these levels. In fact, some are capable of producing sounds that are 100 decibels or higher. Sounds at 115 decibels can permanently damage hearing after just 15 minutes of exposure.

Turn the volume down when using earbuds or headphones

Keep your devices at 50 percent volume or less when using earbuds or headphones. That’s usually a safe area below the decibel level that can cause hearing loss. While listening to your earbuds or headphones, you should be able to hear and participate in a conversation. If you can’t hear the other person, your device probably is too loud.

Most sets of earbuds or headphones will list their maximum decibel level on the package or in the instruction manual. If you don’t have the packaging or instructions for your device anymore, search for your particular model online to find details about its maximum decibel level. However, keep in mind that these published or posted figures may not have the most accurate information. A December 2016 report in The New York Times noted that 30 sets of children’s headphones in a product analysis failed to restrict their volumes to the posted limits.

Be particularly mindful of children’s exposure to loud noises. As smartphones and other devices have become a part of everyday life, children are exposed to loud music and other sounds more often than we might realize. Make sure your children know to keep the volume down on their devices. One alternative for kids: Get them reading! Reading, of course, is perfectly safe for the ears—just watch the volume levels on audiobooks.

The dirty danger of earbuds and headphones

Perhaps just as important as the decibel levels of our devices is keeping our devices clean. Most people never think about cleaning their earbuds or headphones despite putting them in or on their ears several times a day.

Consider this: Your smartphone is likely one of the dirtiest things you own. You may carry it with you all the time, wherever you go, even in the bathroom. Then you plug the earbuds into the phone to listen to music, and put the earbuds in your ears. The bacteria from the phone now have a direct path into your ear canals.

Luckily, there’s an easy fix for this dirty dilemma. Clean your earbuds or headphones with alcohol at least once a day to reduce the risk of bacterial contamination. Make sure you don’t get the alcohol near the headphone jack or other sensitive electronic contact points. You also can use antibacterial wipes that are specially designed for electronic equipment to clean your phone, earbuds and headphones.

Headphones and earbuds are great tools while we’re hard at work, working out or just relaxing with our favorite tunes. But just like anything else, they’re best when used in moderation. Keeping the volume down now may mean you don’t have to turn it up so loud to hear later in life.

Tuning In to Vocal Disorders

Estimates place the number of Americans with disorders or diseases of the voice at 7.5 million. But many common vocal problems can be prevented. 

From soothing a newborn to shouting for joy, the voice is our most common form of communication, central to nearly everything we do.   And while we might expect performers, on-air personalities, professional speakers and others in the spotlight to suffer from voice problems, those in less glamorous fields are affected, as well.

“We often associate voice disorders with professional singers or actors,” says Donna Saur, a senior speech language pathologist and specialist in voice disorders at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “But the truth is injuries are just as common for teachers or tour guides—really, anyone who uses their voice for a living.”

The teaching profession is especially hard hit. In fact, several studies report that teachers have a higher, lifetime prevalence of voice disorders than non-teachers, often nearly double the rate.  Research findings from Duke University Medical Center go even further, suggesting that vocal disorders among all occupations account for nearly as many days of short-term disability claims as asthma, heart disease or depression.

Estimates place the number of Americans overall with disorders or diseases of the voice at roughly 7.5 million. While some voice problems may be symptoms of an underlying, more serious disease like cancer, most are preventable by avoiding overuse or vocal cord strain.

“There are a few basic strategies everyone can use every day to protect and preserve the voice,” says Saur. “Keep yourself well-hydrated. Don’t try to talk above background noise.” And especially for teachers: “Find non-verbal ways to attract attention, such as clapping, ringing a bell or blowing a whistle.”

Additional pointers from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders include:

  • Avoid speaking or singing when your voice is hoarse, tired or you’re sick.
  • Avoid whispering or screaming as both can stress your voice.
  • Practice good breathing and voice projection techniques.
  • Consider voice therapy to learn how to use your voice correctly.
  • If you think you have a voice problem, consult a doctor first to determine the underlying cause.
We are here to help!

If you have any questions call MedStar Washington Hospital Center at 202-877-3627.

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