Can Headphones Damage Your Hearing?

Were the latest Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones on your wish list this year? If so, you’ve likely had the chance to experience the sound and clarity the headphones are famous for, but did you know that overexposure to loud music over long periods of time can cause temporary or even permanent hearing loss?

That’s right. Cranking the volume up on your headphones loud enough and long enough can put you at risk for what’s called noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, NIHL can be immediate or it can take a long time before it’s noticeable. It can be temporary or permanent, and it can affect one ear or both ears. Possibly most troubling is that many times, such as when you wear headphones, you don’t even realize that you could be damaging your hearing until it’s too late.

NIHL can happen at any age, from children and teens to older adults. Based on a 2011-2012 Centers for Disease Control study involving hearing tests and interviews with participants, at least 10 million adults (6%) in the U.S. under age 70—and perhaps as many as 40 million adults (24%)—have features of their hearing test that suggest hearing loss in one or both ears from exposure to loud noise. Researchers have also estimated that as many as 17% of teens (ages 12 to 19) have features of their hearing test suggestive of NIHL in one or both ears.

What causes NIHL?

Sound is measured in units called decibels. Sounds at or below 70 A-weighted decibels (dBA), even after long exposure, are unlikely to cause hearing loss. However, long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 dBA can cause hearing loss. The louder the sound, the less time it takes for NIHL to happen.

That’s because listening to loud sounds for long periods of time can damage the auditory nerve and hair cells of the cochlea, or inner ear. Once those hair cells are damaged, there’s no repairing them, and the result is hearing loss.

While exposure to a loud explosion or gunshot can cause NIHL, so can listening to headphones at louder than normal volumes. Other activities that can cause NIHL include exposure to power tools, loud engines, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and attending loud concerts, just to name a few.

Even listening to headphones at a moderate volume can damage hearing over time. And they don’t present a problem just because you can listen to loud music. They also present a danger to your hearing because the sound is literally so close to your ears and the delicate hair cells necessary to hear, plus many people listen to their headphones for several hours, not just a few minutes. 

So how can you enjoy those new headphones AND save your hearing?

Be aware of how loud common sounds actually are. A normal conversation is typically 60 to 70 decibels (dBA), the measurement of sound. According to the CDC, sounds at or below 70 dBA, even after long exposure, are unlikely to cause hearing loss. However, long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 dBA can cause hearing loss. Music through headphones at maximum volume is typically 94 to 110 dBA, putting your hearing at risk.

To prevent hearing loss with headphones:

  • Turn the volume down below recommended levels to reduce exposure to loud noise.
  • Use noise-canceling headphones to block out external sounds.
  • Wear over-the-ear headphones instead of earbuds or in-the-ear headphones.
  • Reduce the amount of time you use headphones by taking breaks.

Watch for these signs of hearing loss if you:

  • Have difficulty understanding conversations in noisy places.
  • Have problems hearing high-pitched sounds.
  • Have difficulty distinguishing between consonants, such as “f” or “s” or “t” or “v.”
  • Feel sounds are muffled or people always seem to be mumbling.
  • Have ringing in your ears.
  • Constantly are asking others to repeat what they said or to speak louder.

If you suspect you may have a hearing loss, schedule an appointment with a doctoral-level audiologist for a diagnostic hearing evaluation. The audiologist is trained to perform the comprehensive testing needed to diagnose NIHL and can make recommendations for treatment, often with hearing aids.