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Are Earbuds Damaging Your Hearing?

Now that so many of us are working from home and participating in endless Zoom meetings, all-day headphone use is more common than ever before. But what does that mean for your hearing and ear health?

May is Better Hearing Month, a perfect opportunity to pay better attention to your noise exposure and ear hygiene. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 12.5% of children and adolescents (6 to 19 years old) and 17% of adults (20 to 69 years old) have suffered permanent damage to their hearing from excessive exposure to noise.

Dr. Alexandra Costlow, an audiologist, and Dr. Dennis Fitzgerald, an otolaryngologist, share their knowledge on prolonged earbud use and help us better understand how to protect our ears.

How does prolonged earbud use affect our ear hygiene?

Dr. Fitzgerald: You may have seen some recent news about an occurrence of fungal infection with prolonged earbud use. But this was mostly anecdotal—there’s really no risk of fungal infection with earbuds because they don’t fit tightly enough to obstruct your ear canal. Where there may be a risk of fungal infection is when air can’t reach the ear canal and moisture builds up; this can happen in people who wear hearing aids because they fit tightly.

When it comes to protecting our hearing, does it matter what kind of headphones we use?

Dr. Costlow: The easy answer is: No. The most important thing to pay attention to when choosing your headphones is comfort. You want them to be comfortable and secure so they’re not irritating the ear canal. Jefferson can actually provide you with custom molds that can be added to your existing headphones if you’re looking for a better fit.

More important than the type of headphones you use is your exposure to noise. You should be mindful of the volume of sound and the amount of time you’re exposed to it.

What is a reasonable volume and time limit for noise exposure?

Dr. Costlow: The current recommendation from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is not exceeding a noise level of 85 decibels for eight hours per day. For comparison, the conversational noise level we’re used to is about 50 to 65 decibels, which is well below the recommended maximum. So if you’re listening to Zoom calls or music at a conversational level for an eight-hour workday, it’s generally considered safe.

When it comes to extended noise exposure, give yourself enough time to process information and gather your thoughts. It’s a good idea to take breaks from conversations or music throughout the day to give yourself and your brain time to reset.

What about limiting noise exposure outside of work?

Dr. Costlow: Even if you have a quiet job, it’s important to think about your exposure to noise outside of work. Hobbies, like playing in a band, using power tools, riding motorcycles, or even attending sporting events, can be damaging to your hearing if you’re not taking proper precautions.

If you often find yourself in noisy environments, it’s a good idea to take auditory breaks. For instance, if you’re practicing in a band, try taking a 15-minute break for every half hour that your band is playing. Also, be sure to protect your hearing by wearing earplugs—either foam earplugs that you can buy at the pharmacy or custom-made earplugs, which you can get from our office.

When should we be worried about our hearing and ear health?

Dr. Fitzgerald: It’s important to pay attention to your body if you feel symptoms like ear pain, obstructed hearing, dizziness or impaired balance—these are telltale symptoms of a bacterial ear infection. For fungal infections, you won’t feel pain but an increase in itchiness and trouble hearing. If you experience any of these symptoms it’s important to see a doctor.

Dr. Costlow: Hearing damage is irreversible, so it’s best to stay proactive in protecting your hearing. If you notice ringing, a feeling of fullness or clogging, or you have more difficulty hearing after noise exposure, those are signs that you might have damaged your hearing. The ringing or fullness may go away, but the hair cells in your ears are damaged—not to mention that routine exposures like this can cause serious issues over the course of a lifetime.

If you’re concerned about a change in your hearing, or even if you’d like to come in for a baseline test, reach out to the Jefferson Balance and Hearing Center.

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COVID-19, Healthy You