Exploring the Health Risks of Modern Earphone Use

An earphone user reported that after using AirPods for some time, he developed a persistent high-pitched tone in his ears. He has always taken great care to protect his hearing, avoiding loud noises and carrying earplugs to shield himself from potential harmful sounds. Despite these precautions, his condition worsened. He noticed that even when he inserts his AirPods and doesn’t play any audio, they emit a high-pitched tone that closely mimics his tinnitus. This experience has led him to believe that the AirPods might have caused his tinnitus.

AirPods and similar earphones are the most popular choices among teenagers today. The rise of wireless earphones has significantly influenced how different generations use these devices, with younger people adopting them more widely than older ones. However, the core issue isn’t the type of earphones used but rather a widespread problem: irresponsible usage. The allure of convenient features like wireless connectivity, noise cancellation, and improved sound quality has led to increased overuse, exacerbating the problem.

It is estimated that 20% of teenagers are at risk of experiencing hearing loss, partly because of their frequent use of headphones and earphones. A review revealed that between 6-60% of earphone users exhibit signs of hearing loss, such as difficulty hearing and tinnitus. Meanwhile, the use of earphones among young people is on the rise. A poll conducted in February involving parents of children aged 5 to 12 found that two-thirds of them reported their children regularly use headphones and earphones.

It’s commonly understood that loud noises can harm hearing. However, even listening at low volumes for prolonged periods can be detrimental. Many people use their earphones throughout the day, while working, at home, and even during sleep. Although the volume may not always be high, wearing earphones for extended hours can still strain the ears.

The cochlea, situated behind the eardrum within our ears, is crucial for converting sound waves into electrical signals that are sent to the brain. Extended earphone use can stress and damage the cells in the cochlea, potentially leading to hearing loss if some cells die. Continuously wearing earphones in the ear canals creates a humid and congested environment, increasing the risk of ear infections. Additionally, in-ear earphones generate more pressure inside the ear compared to over-ear headphones.

Research indicates a strong connection between chronic tinnitus, hearing loss, and increased brain activity. The majority of those with tinnitus have some degree of hearing impairment, where the brain lacks sound input at specific frequencies. Individuals with mild tinnitus might not always perceive the phantom noises when ambient sounds in their surroundings help mask the tinnitus. However, the high-pitched noises become more apparent in quiet settings, when wearing ear protection, or while using noise-canceling earphones.

It is advised that earphones be used at a maximum volume of 85 decibels, similar to the noise level of a food blender or heavy city traffic, to avoid hearing damage. Additionally, it’s recommended to take breaks from earphones every two hours, even at lower volumes, to prevent ear fatigue. People who suffer from hearing loss and tinnitus can still enjoy earphones by limiting their usage. For those concerned about ear infections, over-ear headsets are a safer option. Earphones, which are positioned close to the eardrums, can create more pressure in the ear canal than headphones, potentially worsening hearing loss and contributing to headaches.

To view the original scientific study click below:
Associations between adolescents’ earphone usage in noisy environments, hearing loss, and self-reported hearing problems in a nationally representative sample of South Korean middle and high school students