January 3, 2006
Safe Headphone and Ear Bud Use
Amy Movius, MD
Portable listening devices, such as ipods, were at the top of many holiday “wish lists” this year. Pretty much everywhere you go, people of all ages are wearing headphones or ear buds and tuning in (or out?) while going about their lives. I’m a bit of an ipod junkie myself. While these portable devices are great for listening to music or the news, overuse of any of these items that attach directly to the ears can cause noise induced hearing loss (NIHL). This applies to cell phone use with headsets or ear buds as well
NIHL is different from the normal hearing loss expected with age. It comes on gradually and is often not noticed until it is severe. Once it occurs, hearing loss is permanent. Development of NIHL is a function of how long and how loud the noise exposure is, and it accumulates over time. NIHL associated with loud music is very well documented. In fact, in San Francisco it is now a law that earplugs be passed out to patrons entering music clubs.
There are characteristics of headphone/ear bud use that may increase the risk of NIHL. Ear buds fit directly into the ear canal; they also deliver the decibels directly into the ear canal. Users of portable listening devices or cell phones with headphones or ear buds tend to increase the volume of these devices to drown out background sound. Long lasting rechargeable batteries have resulted in much longer use periods than in the past, often several hours a day. Sound quality has improved with technology as well. In the walkman era, volume was partially limited by sound distortion. Without this concern, today’s devices are often used at volumes that are frankly dangerous.
NIHL is 100% preventable, and you don’t have to give up your ipod or cell phone to avoid it! When wearing headphones, no one else should be able to hear what you are listening to. If you can hear your teenager’s music or friend’s cell phone conversation, tell them to turn the volume down and explain why. Research has suggested that headphone or ear bud use with portable music players for 1 hour/day at 60% volume is likely safe. If you have ringing in your ears or things sound dull or flat after you have been using headphones, the noise level you were using was hazardous, and should be reduced next time. Of course, if you have any concern about your hearing, you should get it checked. Even if you have some hearing loss, you can still prevent it from worsening.