Headphones and Hearing Loss: What You Need to Know

Mankind’s relationship with headphones goes back to the late 19th century when the first telephone operators were using them to listen and speak to customers while blocking out the noises in the surrounding environment. We’ve been so intimately acquainted with these devices that today we practically take them for granted. But what if your headphones are making you deaf? To what extent is this happening? And what can you do to prevent hearing loss if it is a concern?

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A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States demonstrates that up to a quarter of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have some form of hearing loss due to consistent noise levels. The American Osteopathic Association takes this one step further, saying that headphones may be responsible for one in five teens suffering from some minor or major form of hearing loss.

The data shows that a significant majority of people who listen to headphones at high volume or use certain kinds of headphones may put themselves at risk for permanent damage. When you look into a light or work out too much your body begins to “tolerate” the excessive stimuli and numbs itself. This also happens to your ears when you have consistent noise. It’s why tractor drivers and crane operators often wear safety earmuffs. The constant noise of the engine can make you deaf!

Loudness isn’t the only factor that promotes hearing loss. Consistency of noise and its duration can also numb your ears to the point that they’re ringing. Once you reach that point, you’ve experienced a moderate amount of damage. If you have ever listened to an MP3 player using powerful headphones at 85% of the maximum volume for more than an hour, you might have noticed that after removing them you have to acclimate to your environment again. In other words, your ears got so numb that every bit of speech around you sounds muffled for at least a few seconds or even a minute. Don’t ever do that again!

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Unfortunately there is no perfect cure to going deaf. Your only hope here is to actively prevent it from happening in the first place. Even if you’re not under 30, now is a good time to take every measure you can to preserve every bit of precious hearing you have. Here are a few ways to do that at least as far as headphones are concerned:

  • Avoid using earbuds. They shoot noise directly into your ear canal without allowing some of it to escape. Headphones that surround your ear provide a milder listening experience, although they are a little more expensive. If you plan to use them, do so sparingly and with a moderately low volume.
  • Can you have a conversation with someone next to you? If you have a very hard time hearing anything anyone says around you, the volume is probably louder than it should be. I say probably because noise-cancelling headphones can block sounds from your environment without needing to blast music into your ears at volumes that will rip them to shreds. Speaking of which, you should get some noise-cancelling headphones if you want to block the outside world. Don’t raise your volume on normal headphones to do that.
  • Ask a person to stand one meter from you, then listen to something through your headphones normally. Ask that person if they can hear what you hear perfectly. If they say yes, lower the volume. It’s too loud!

Everything I said above might make you hesitant to ever pick up your MP3 player again, but you really shouldn’t worry too much. Just make sure you’re listening to things at a reasonable volume and make sure you’re not spending way too much time with your headphones on (especially if you are using earbuds).

Do you have other pieces of advice for hearing loss prevention? Tell us your thoughts in a comment!

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