Hear Today, Gone Tomorrow

Headphones can cause hearing loss.

Like many music lovers, you probably pump up the volume of your new favorite song or exercise playlist. But research has shown that doing so—especially while wearing headphones or earbuds—can cause permanent hearing loss.

Loud noise is actually the most common cause of hearing loss. Up to 16 percent of teenagers and an estimated 26 million Americans (aged 20 to 69) already have irreversible hearing loss due to loud sounds, according to the National Institutes of Health.

What is too loud?

You may assume that your headphones or earbuds are designed to protect your ears. But, when you crank up the volume, they can potentially release up to 105 decibels (dB) of sound. Continued exposure to sounds at or above 85 dB can cause hearing problems. Sounds less than 75 dB are considered safe for your ears. Normal conversation reaches about 60 dB.

Damage to your ears can develop slowly over time with repeated exposure to loud music. The louder the sound, the quicker your ears can become permanently damaged.

“Hearing loss caused by loud music or noise is the result of a sudden or repeated injury to the delicate hair cells of the inner ear,” said Dr. Dana Libman, of the University of Miami Health System. “These cells have the job of converting vibrations into signals that our brains detect as sounds. When your ear hair cells are damaged, they can’t grow back and your hearing may be permanently harmed.”

Exposure to loud music or noise can also cause tinnitus, a ringing in the ears that can be brief or never go away.

How to avoid hearing loss with headphones

  • Reduce the volume to 60% or less of the maximum volume or use the volume-limiting feature (sometimes called the “smart volume” feature) on your mobile phone or music player.
  • Limit headphone use to one hour per day.
  • Take regular breaks from headphone use.
  • Use noise-canceling headphones to avoid environmental sound intrusion.
  • Don’t turn up the volume to overcome environmental noise.
  • Don’t listen with just one earbud because you’ll be more tempted to turn up the volume.
  • Don’t ignore the early signs of hearing loss, even for children and teenagers.
  • Ask your doctor for a hearing test if you or your child has trouble hearing conversations, increasingly needs to turn up the volume or is experiencing ringing in the ears.

“Here’s a simple test to determine if you or your kid’s headphones are too loud,” said Dr. Libman. “Stand arm’s length away from the person wearing headphones and ask them a question. If they can’t hear you—or if you can hear the music coming from the headphones—then the volume is too loud and unsafe for the ears. And it’s time to take a break from listening and turn down the volume when they pick up the headphones again.”