Wearing headphones can feel like a wonderful musical experience, allowing you to dive deeper into the world of sonic exploration. Despite this enjoyable sensation, an important question arises as to how noise levels impact hearing and the health of your ears. Here’s a look at the evidence on whether headphones harm hearing.
Human ears are delicate and can only handle a certain noise level before the hearing is impaired. Noise level is measured in decibels (dBs). While a telephone dial tone has a noise level of 80 dB, highway traffic is heard at 92 dB. A stadium concert can be as loud as 113 dB. Each of these noise levels presents risks to human hearing if exposed for a prolonged period.
Inside the human ear is an eardrum that vibrates while thousands of tiny hairs called cochlea sense the vibrations. Over time, too much exposure to loud sounds causes these tiny hair cells to lose sensitivity. Keep in mind that workplace noise levels must be capped at 90 dB, as regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
According to government data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), listening to a noise level of 80 dB can cause hearing damage within 25 hours. In other words, headphone volume doesn’t have to be loud to cause hearing damage. Headphone sounds cause hair cells in the cochlea to severely bend. In time they can recover, but constant exposure to headphone volume and duration of loudness increases the risks of damage.
Excessive exposure to loud noise can lead to what audiologists call “noise-induced hearing loss.” That’s why it’s helpful at concerts to wear ear protection. Listening to headphones at a high volume for too long is the main problem for headphone users that leads to impaired hearing.
People who occasionally listen to music in headphones probably don’t have much to worry about in terms of hearing loss from the experience. But the person who has immersed themselves in the headphone experience on a regular basis may suffer permanent damage to the inner ear. Exposure to prolonged noise is clearly more damaging the louder it gets. Some people develop tinnitus from this exposure, in which ringing in the ears persists.
In order to reduce the risks of ear damage, it’s important for consumers of headphones to know about decibel ratings. They should also be aware that audiologists recommend over-the-ear headphones rather than in-ear versions such as earbuds. At full volume, earbuds can be as loud as 112 dB. Extra space between the speakers and the ears reduces the potential damage headphones can cause since decibels decrease with distance.
Researchers believe that listening between 60 to 85 decibels is safe for lengthy periods. Children should listen to headphones no louder than 82 decibels. Listeners should only plan to listen at a level of 105 dB for less than ten minutes.
Wearing headphones when listening to podcasts or other audio content is safe if you listen at a reasonable level, such as at 70 percent volume or under 80 decibels. But listening at a loud volume excessively can cause permanent damage to hearing. Audiologists call this condition “noise-induced hearing loss.” Use this guide for safe listening and be aware that your ears can only handle so much noise.