Headphones and Hearing Loss: What's Your Risk?

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Male jogger or runner wearing headphones looking at mobile phone

It’s not just a concern for teenagers, anyone who listens to loud music with headphones or earbuds is at risk for noise-induced hearing loss. While headphones don’t pose a hearing loss risk themselves, the way they are used can lead to noise-induced hearing loss. Your risk increases as the volume gets louder and the frequency and duration of listening gets longer. Learn how you can lower your risk of hearing loss without giving up music altogether.

Volume and Duration Affect Hearing Loss Risk

The amount of time you listen to music or other noise matters just as much as the volume of the sound. Some volumes, such as normal conversation or the noise of a clothes dryer, don’t have a time limit of safe listening. These volumes are less than 80 decibels, which is the unit used to measure sound.

As volume increases, the amount of safe listening time decreases—rapidly. For example, a lawn mower is about 90 decibels, and it’s safe to hear that noise for about two and a half hours. But 100 decibels, about the volume of a hair dryer, is safe for only 15 minutes. At 125 decibels, the volume of a siren is safe for just three seconds.

The maximum volume of headphones varies, but can be up to about 120 decibels. For frame of reference, a typical rock concert is usually about 110 to 120 decibels, or up to about 140 decibels if you’re right in front of speakers. At the full volume of 120 decibels, not more than 10 minutes of headphone listening time is safe for your ears. Listening longer than 10 minutes can damage your hearing.

Choosing Earbuds vs. Headphones to Avoid Hearing Loss

Neither earbuds nor headphones cause hearing loss themselves, but the differing ways you use them can affect your risk. Because earbuds don’t block out any background noise, you’re more likely to turn up the volume so you can hear better. And because they sit at the edge of your ear canal, they tend to send more decibels directly to your eardrum.

While headphones that cover your entire ear may be more cumbersome, they’re often a safer choice. Headphones are better at blocking background noise, so you’ll be able to listen at a lower volume. Noise-canceling headphones, which block nearly all background noise, are a safer choice. Similarly, isolating earbuds—which help block background noise by sealing off your ear canal—can allow you to listen at a quieter volume. One caution: Because noise-canceling headphones and isolating earbuds severely limit your ability to hear outside noises, be sure you’re in a safe environment where you don’t always need to know what’s going on around you.

Lower Your Hearing Loss Risk

You can lower your risk of hearing loss and still safely listen to your favorite tunes with headphones or earbuds. Stick to the 60/60 rule: Instead of listening to music full blast, turn it down to 60% volume and listen no longer than 60 minutes. Remember, higher decibels exponentially raise the risk of hearing loss. Turning down the volume even a little bit can greatly reduce your risk of hearing loss.

As a test, ask people around you whether they can hear your music while you’re wearing earbuds or headphones. If they can, it’s too loud.

Consequences of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Noise-induced hearing loss can be permanent. Teenagers and young adults have the highest risk of impaired development as a result. Already, more than 5 million children and 26 million adults have permanent damage to their inner ear that has caused noise-induced hearing loss. Hearing plays a crucial role in the development of speech, language and communication, so hearing loss can impede a child’s listening and learning in school.

Because hearing loss happens gradually, people often don’t realize it’s happening until permanent damage has already occurred. If you or your child is experiencing muffled or distorted sounds, or you notice ringing or buzzing in the ears after hearing a loud noise, you or your child may have hearing loss. It’s best to recognize the risk factors of hearing loss before permanent damage occurs. It’s a good idea for you and your child’s pediatrician to talk to your child about safe listening habits.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 May 12
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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