Teen with earbuds oblivious

Do Headphones Cause Hearing Loss?

Headphones are a top item on many holiday wish lists this year. However, despite their popularity, headphones can damage your hearing if not used properly.

Damage to the ear caused by noise exposure can lead to permanent hearing loss. The effects of this may not be noticeable at first, but as you age, it will become more and more apparent, leading to a greater percentage of hearing loss at an earlier age.

Hearing loss that is caused by noise exposure is entirely preventable, and buying the right headphones and following a few simple safety precautions, including the 60/60 rule, will help preserve your hearing now and well into the future.

With all the different options on the market today, it may be surprising to learn that safety has little to do with the actual headphones and more with usage. Listening at a high volume is one of the leading causes of noise damage to the ear. The volume should never exceed 85 decibels.

To compare, the normal speaking voice is around 60 decibels, and an emergency vehicle siren is around 115 decibels. Anything above 85 decibels could permanently damage your hearing. Consider downloading an app on your phone to measure decibel level in any given environment.

The amount of time you use the headphones or earbuds is also an important factor to consider. The longer the use, the more likely damage will occur. A common rule to remember is 60 percent volume for 60 minutes, and then take a break. Following this simple 60/60 rule will prevent any hearing loss.

You may also consider setting a maximum volume on your and/or your child’s devices. Most tablets, MP3 players and televisions have parental controls for setting maximum volume.

When shopping for headphones, there are several factors to take into consideration. There are two main types of headphones to choose from. Over-the-ear headphones are large and cover the whole ear while earbuds are smaller and are inserted into the ear. Between these two options, earbuds may be slightly safer for your hearing because the sound is emitted closer to your eardrum so the volume doesn’t need to be so high.

However, both over-the-ear headphones and earbuds are available with a noise-canceling feature that allows you to reduce the background noise around you. If you are choosing noise-canceling headphones, the design of over-the-ear headphones makes it easier to block out background noise. This generally means a lower volume can be used.

Before you decide to get noise-canceling headphones, you should think about the circumstances where you plan to use them. Noise-canceling headphones are great for listening on an airplane or out in public, but they can be disastrous if used when biking or jogging where environmental awareness is crucial for safety.

No matter which type of headphone you use, the quality of the headphones can affect safety too. The better the headphones or earbuds, the higher the fidelity. And if they’re high fidelity, the listening experience is better and not as much volume is needed.

Whether you choose over-the-ear headphones or earbuds, both can be safely used if some simple precautions are taken. Lowering volume as much as possible and limiting the amount of time spent using the headphones are important steps to minimizing permanent hearing damage. And, if you follow the 60/60 rule, you will increase your chances of preserving your hearing now and as you age.

Learn about audiology services at UConn Health, or call 860-679-2804 for an appointment.

Hillary Marquis, Au.D.


Hillary K. Marquis, Au.D.
UConn Health Audiologist

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