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Headphones and Your Hearing

Jan 12, 2017

We are a society that loves headphones. We wear them on the street. We wear them at work. We wear them at home. We put them on our kids in the car. As we fill our lives with an increasing number of devices that play music, stream video, and facilitate communication we are spending more time with headphones firmly on our ears - and this may not be a good thing. "Everyone should be aware of their time using headphones, and limit it," says Natalie Johnson, AuD, an audiologist with University of Utah Health Care. "Otherwise you could damage your hearing."

There are two factors to consider when it comes to headphone use and hearing damage: volume and duration. Volume is the factor most people consider when they think about threats to their hearing. However, duration can do just as much damage. "Very loud sounds, such as a gunshot, can damage hearing instantaneously," says Johnson. "But listening to your iPod at moderately loud levels for a long time can do just as much damage."

Part of the reason sound duration can cause problems is your ears never get a break. They are always "open" and receptive to sound. You may not even be aware that the sound stimulus is causing a problem. "For instance, adults who have to commute long distances get a hearing loss sooner than those who don't, because road noise is loud and over time can cause hearing damage," says Johnson. "You have to think of your total daily 'noise' intake, and try to give your ears a break."

In regards to volume audiologists recommend that the sound should not go above 55 to 65 dBHL (decibels hearing level) to protect your hearing. That's roughly the volume of a standard conversation. That can be hard to translate when it comes to the sound coming from earphones though. Johnson has this tip: "If you can hear someone's music when you are seated more than approximately 3 feet away from them, it's probably too loud."

The type of headphones you choose can also play a part in your risk factor. Earbuds, which sit closer to the eardrum, can cause more damage when sound is played loud. However, that doesn't mean over the ear headphones are the answer - especially for parents picking out headphones for their kids. "It's typically easier for parents to hear "leaking" music from an earbud than from a tight headphone," says Johnson. "So you may not know if your child is listening to something much louder via their headphone than earbud."

Parents should also look for headphones with volume control when shopping for their kids. A recent study showed more than one third of the headphones marketed to kids did not limit volume as they claimed, so it is important to research before heading to the store. Parents can also limit volume on devices for extra protection. "There are features where parents can save the settings to not going above 65 dBHL, and then "lock" it as the loudest it can get," says Johnson. "If a product doesn't give you the option to set the maximum volume, I simply wouldn't get it."

Beyond picking the right headphones and limiting volume on devices parents can protect their kids' hearing - by protecting their own. They can model good behavior by listening to music at appropriate levels and wearing earplugs when involved in noisy activities like snow blowing or mowing the lawn. "Be a good example for your children, and they will learn good listening habits," says Johnson. "Teach your children their hearing is important and their ears should be protected."