It’s a little ironic. Have you ever turned up the volume in your headphones to cut out the noise around you? If you look around, you’ll see people of all ages sporting Bluetooth earbuds at every occasion — at work, at school, at family dinner.
We’ll leave the social implications of this auditory isolation for another discussion, but how worried should you be that your earbuds are causing long-term hearing loss?
Dr. Nicholas Dewyer is an otologist (ear surgeon) at Banner-University Medicine North in Tucson. We asked him about the danger of loud noises and for some advice on how to use earbuds safely.
How loud is too loud?
Decibels (dBA) are the measurement for sound volume. Normal conversation measures at about 60 decibels and a front seat at a Fourth of July fireworks show tops at about 160. So, where do your headphones stack up?
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, music at maximum volume through headphones ranges from 94-110 dBA. That’s about the same as attending a concert or sporting event and is well within the dangerous range for hearing loss.
“Many factors contribute to hearing loss,” said Dr. Dewyer. “Distance of the sound from your ear and the duration of the noise both contribute, but volume is the major cause behind noise-induced hearing loss.”
Dr. Dewyer recommended these simple tests to see if your music is too loud:
Ask your neighbor
If the person sitting next to you can hear the music playing in your headphones, it’s probably too loud.
Listen from a distance
If you’re alone, try holding your headphones in your hands and stretch your arms out in front of you. If you can clearly hear the lyrics, your music is too loud.
Check your levels
In general, your volume bar shouldn’t need to go over the halfway mark. If you’re out for a run or in a crowded space, try to avoid pushing the volume into the top third of its capacity.
This applies even if you’re in a noisy environment like on an airplane or at a busy city street corner — even if you can barely hear your music or podcast over the background noise, you still might be causing permanent damage to your ears. In these noisy situations, using headphones that block out the background noise so you can lower the volume will help save your ears.
Take a break
Even at slightly above average volume levels, long exposure to loud noises can lead to hearing loss down the road. Give your ears a chance to cool down by pulling out the earbuds and sitting in silence for a bit. Besides, even your favorite song can get worn out after a few hundred listens, right? Yeah, I guess not… But your ears might disagree.
Dr. Dewyer also cautions that “even though your ears may feel fine after listening to your earbuds on loud, you may be causing permanent damage that will become noticeable as you get older.”
Do you know where your earbuds have been?
Aside from noise-induced hearing loss, your earbuds could be hurting your ears in other ways. Dr. Dewyer recommended cleaning your earbuds regularly by wiping off any ear wax and cleaning with a sanitary wipe.
Not only can your buds introduce unwelcome bacteria to your ear canal, excessive use can even increase wax production. Ear infections and earwax impactions are not fun, so clean your headphones and your ears regularly and safely. Although sharing your music with a friend may be fun, don’t share your headphones without cleaning them between uses.
For audiophiles, music is a lifelong passion. Protect your hearing and keep the good times rolling by turning down the volume and giving your ears a second to breathe.
If you are having a hard time holding a conversation in noisy places or if you hear a high-pitched ringing noise throughout the day, schedule a visit with your doctor to see if you might be experiencing hearing loss.
Bobby Boland is a contributing writer for Banner Health.