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Headphones & Earphones Can Cause Permanent Hearing Loss

Noise from Improper Use of In-Ear Headphones — Earbuds, Buds, Earphones — May Put Hearing at Risk

Anatomy of the Human Ear
Click on image to enlarge.

The iPod and things like it represent a major advance in personal portable sound systems that can be conveniently worn for extended periods. Included with the variety of sound systems is the variety of amplification systems that come in all shapes and sizes of headphones and earphones. These devices are potentially dangerous because, if used improperly, they can cause permanent hearing loss.

Personal sound systems have become so overwhelmingly popular it seems almost everywhere you go, you see people of all ages tuned into what they want to hear and tuned out of the world around them.

That said, what is the future cost for the luxury we have today to pump up the volume and listen to anything we want whenever and wherever we go, for how ever long we choose? What is the cost to the people that portable listening devices, especially in-ear headphones, are most popular with; namely, our youth?

A leading cause of hearing impairments used to be excessive noise exposure in the workplace, but today many young people are losing their hearing at alarming rates due to excessive noise exposure from portable stereo earphones.

The government through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has long known that noise pollution is one of the most common causes of hearing impairment in adults. During the past decade, the damaging effects of excessive noise pollution from portable stereo earphones have gained attention.

If you can hear the sound being delivered into a person's ear via headphones or earphones,
it indicates the sound is too loud and over an extended period can lead to permanent hearing loss.

Exposure to noise pollution, especially for younger people, has gone from huge boom boxes and car stereo speakers to sound delivered directly into the ear through headphones or earphones.

Headphones and earphones appear to be the most damaging. Since noise-induced hearing loss is a result of intensity (loudness) and duration of exposure, these devices may be capable of inducing a permanent bilateral sensorineural hearing loss — especially if they are used at a volume setting of four or above for extended periods.

Dr. David A. Schessel

Hearing specialist David A. Schessel, MD, PhD, chief of our Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Division, tells parents: "If you can hear the music your child/teenager is playing through their headphones or earphones, it means the sound is too loud and can lead to permanent hearing loss."

The amount of hearing loss that one will suffer is related both to the volume, measured in decibels (dB), and the duration of time that one is exposed to the sound.

Sound at 85 dB or below is considered safe. Think about it!

If one is exposed to sounds greater than 90 dB for an average of eight hours per day without hearing protection, hearing loss will most likely result. As the volume increases, the safe time of exposure decreases.

Here are some loudness/time facts to consider (the unit of measurement is decibel):

  • At 95 dB, damage will occur after four hours of exposure per day.
  • At 100 dB, damage will occur after two hours of exposure per day.
  • At 105 dB, damage will occur after one hour of exposure per day.
  • At 110 dB, damage will occur after 30 minutes of exposure per day.
  • At 115 dB, damage will occur after 15 minutes of exposure per day.
  • At 120-plus dB, damage occurs almost immediately.

Most portable stereo music systems produce sound in the range of 95-108 dB at level four and in excess of 115 dB at level eight.

For comparison, a soft whisper is usually measured at 30dB; busy traffic at 75dB; a subway train at 90dB; a gunshot blast at 100 dB, a jet plane at 140 dB; and a rocket launching pad at 180 dB. Sounds above 140 dB usually cause pain. If you have to speak in a loud voice to be understood, background sound is probably in excess of 90 dB.

Rock legend Pete Townshend, guitarist in the classic rock band The Who, says he has hearing loss from earphones. His "heavy metal" band was known for its earsplitting performances, but his hearing loss is not due to them. His hearing was irreversibly damaged by years of using studio earphones, and now he must take day-and-a half-long breaks between recording sessions to allow his ears to recover. Townshend puts it this way: "Hearing loss is a terrible thing because it cannot be repaired. If you use an iPod or anything like it or your child uses one, you may be okay. But my intuition tells me there is terrible trouble ahead."

Headphone wearers beware: ADJUST YOUR VOLUME! Click here for more information about noise-induced hearing loss, provided by Stony Brook Medicine University Physicians.


Hello, This is a great article, and I was wondering if there is anyone I could email for further information!!
Thanks for your comment. I would suggest you speak with Dr. Szeremeta, our pediatric ENT specialist, who is featured in this blog. The phone number of his office is 631-444-4121. -- Webmaster
Thanks for the sharing of such information. We will pass it on to our readers.
This is a great article. As an installer of car stereo systems I always try to warn my customers about hearing loss. Most people think that the problem only happens from headphones, but loud speakers will do the same thing over time.
Indeed useful information for maintaining our health and preventing any damage that may arise in the future. Music plays a big role in our daily lives. However, anything that is too much can harm us.
Very informative. Everything that is too much is harm-full. Everything we do should always be in moderation. I agree to that listening music from headphones is the number one cause for loss of hearing. Most specially if the volume is too much for the ear to handle. Listening music using portable music devices like wireless headphones should have some limitations and loudness should be in the considerable volume.
Gunshots are generally above 150 db+. You can ruin your hearing in just one gunshot without wearing hearing protection.
Thanks for sharing. But I feel that this need not always be the case. I feel that with the use of quality headphones, the effect would definitely be reduced. Nevertheless, thanks for this useful article. I will definitely take note and reduce my usage of headphones.
I can see the issue with playing your headphones too loud, but if played at a reasonable volume I believe they will protect your hearing. If you can keep out most of the loud ambient noise of life, and don't listen to music at excessive volumes, I don't see how they would do anything but help.
All of us know that headphones and earphones are bad for hearing. But hardly anyone knows exactly why or how much. Thank you for this insightful article. I hope to use it as a reference in the near future for my presentation. Great words!!
My 16-year-old has been diagnosed with hearing loss, likely due to noise exposure from music played into portable earbuds. Are earphones any better? I would think maybe slightly, but social pressure will likely keep my child from adhering to restrictions to prevent further loss, and I want to make some accommodation in addition to monitoring of sound. For those of you that don't know it, Apple includes a volume lock function on devices. You can set the volume so that it does not go above a certain limit.
To answer the question of whether different headphones will help this 16-year-old, the short answer is no. Loud sustained noise of 105 dB whether it be heard through an earbud, a headphone, or at a concert venue is equally damaging to the inner ear, and all environments can potentially cause the same degree of hearing loss. The best way to avoid noise-induced hearing loss is to avoid the unnecessary noise. You can find more information that addresses your question at the website of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD): http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing/pages/noise.aspx. — Wasyl Szeremeta, MD
I was a Disc Jockey for over 10 years and am lucky to not have sustained any hearing loss which did surprise me after getting my hearing checked, a lot of my fellow DJ friends aren't so lucky, a lot have Tinnitus. Youngsters need to beware of the damage that can be done from an early age! Great article! Cheers, Damon
This is a great article. Youngsters need to beware of the damage that can be done from an early age. Kindly regards, Ravindran Gopal.
This is a great article. As an installer of car stereo systems I always try to warn my customers about hearing loss. Most people think that the problem only happens from headphones, but loud speakers will do the same thing over time.
This is a very interesting topic. Excellent information.
thanks I just purchased an mp3 player and realised i play it too loudly along with everything else i listen to i will be turning down the volume as much as possible from now on (very low) thanks!