When you use your headphones for too long

While using headphones or earbuds are necessary when you share space with others, remember to take a break from using them every hour to help preserve your hearing. — 123rf.com

My daughter loves her headphones. She will listen to music all day for hours and hours without stopping. She will also watch all her movies on her laptop using her headphones. But I don’t feel good about letting her wear headphones for hours on end. Will this cause her any medical damage?

Actually, yes.

There is a 60-60 rule for wearing headphones, according to the experts.

You should only put the sound on at 60% volume, and you should only listen for 60 minutes.

After that, you should stop and do something else.

This does not only relate to headphones, but also to earbuds that you connect to your laptop or phone.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that there are about one billion people around the world that are at risk of hearing loss because of unsafe headphone or earbud listening.

How are they unsafe? I myself like to listen to music when I go for a run.

The trouble with headphones is that they are capable of producing very loud sounds very close to your eardrums.

This is very dangerous.

Noise produces sound waves that vibrate our eardrums when they are within our hearing range.

The vibration from our eardrums then spread to the small bones of our middle ear and is transmitted to our cochlea.

The cochlea, which is a chamber in our inner ear, is filled with fluid and consists of thousands of small “hairs”.

The vibration makes our cochlea fluid vibrate too.

This in turn makes the tiny hairs inside move.

The hair cells will translate these movements into electrical impulses that get transmitted to our brain via our eighth cranial nerve.

Finally, our brain will interpret sound from these impulses.

The louder the sound, the stronger the vibrations become, and the more aggressively the hairs move.

Ultimately, with long-term exposure to long noises – and thus, strong vibrations – these hair cells will eventually lose their sensitivity to the vibrations.

The hair can even bend or fold over.

When this happens, you can develop temporary hearing loss.

Oh no! But it is only temporary, right?

Even temporary hearing loss is nothing to be trifled with – it is a very serious thing.

Your hair cells may or may not recover from these extreme vibrations.

Even if they do recover, they will be unlikely to be able to function normally any more.

This can lead to permanent deafness.

And deafness is almost impossible to recover from.

But I do not play my music very loudly on my headphones. That should be okay, right?

Well, if you play any sound for a long duration, you are also exposed to the dangers mentioned above.

This is called noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).

What about ear infections? Can I get them from wearing headphones?

Yes, especially if you wear earbuds.

Earbuds and headphones are exposed to germs, especially when you do not keep them away properly, but just leave them lying around.

Some people also share earbuds, allowing bacteria to transmit from one person to the other.

Moreover, as your earbuds are directly placed into your ear canal, they can block air from reaching the inside of your ear canal.

This enhances the risk of infections.

What other dangers are there?

You can also get:

  • Tinnitus

    This occurs when the damaged hair cells in your cochlea result in a ringing, buzzing or roaring noise.
  • Hyperacusis

    This is a condition where you are highly sensitive to normal environmental sounds.
  • Dizziness

    As the semicircular canals in your inner ear are associated with balance, increased pressure within the ear can result in dizziness.
  • Too much ear wax

    When your ear does not get enough air circulation, your ear wax cannot come out.

    It accumulates inside instead, which leads to the risk of tinnitus, hearing difficulty, earache and ear infections.
  • Ear pain

    Some people can get pain from excessive earbud use, and also from earbuds that fit poorly.
  • Headache

    The electromagnetic waves from headphones can give you headaches and impair your sleep.
What can I do to prevent all this? I need to use headphones for my work and my daughter for her studies! Especially when we are all working and studying from home during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Back to the 60-60 rule.

Keep your volume at 60% and give yourself a break every hour.

Noise-cancelling headphones are better as they will cancel out ambient noise.

This helps to remove the temptation for you to turn up the volume in order to drown out sounds from your surrounding environment, especially when you are outdoors or if everyone is at home together in the same or nearby spaces, and doing things that make noise.

Headphones (over the ear) are better than earbuds in order to avoid too direct sounds to the eardrums, as well as direct contact with your ear canal.

And do remember to regularly sanitize your headphones or earbuds as well.

Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health, computers and entertainment. For further information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

Editor's note: The next edition of this column will be published online on Oct 14 (2021).

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Headphones , ear infection , deafness


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