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March 2, 2021

Do headphones have an effect on your hearing?

Many of us wear headphones daily, either at home or out and about when we are on the go! We often see people around us wearing headphones during their work commute, in a coffee shop, crossing the street, the list goes on. They may be listening to music or a podcast or talking on the phone – have you ever sat next to someone on your commute and heard which song they are listening to? Sure, it can be irritating when you would prefer a quiet commute but you may also wonder if that person is thinking about their hearing. It’s not just music that we listen to through headphones; gaming is also very popular with the number of players now estimated at 33 million in the UK.


The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that around a billion young people across the globe could be at risk of hearing loss because of unsafe listening habits through headphones. In fact, what you consider as safe listening levels from your headphones might be lower than you think. The NHS warns us that listening to audio through these devices at high intensities can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss and tinnitus.


Experts recommend that you should keep sound levels below 85dB. Listening to any sounds higher than 89dB (decibels) through headphones for more than 5 hours a week can cause permanent hearing loss. The NHS also recommends that you listen to music through your device at no more than 60% of the available volume. If you listen continuously through your headphones, you should only do so for no more than 1 hour at a time – it is important to have breaks and let your ears recover and relax.


Damage to your ears may not be immediately obvious as the impact could be cumulative over time. Exposure to loud sounds for any length of time causes fatigue of the ear’s sensory cells and if these habits persist, the risk of high frequency loss is increased. This type of hearing loss is called a noise induced hearing loss (NIHL). It is preventable if you take care with the volume of your headphones; it is the loudness and the duration of sound that matters here. Hearing aids may help with NIHL but a hearing instrument or device will never restore your natural hearing.


Some phones have volume limiters but it’s best not to rely on these as they are only provided as a guide (but it is a good place to start). You should be able to find out about volume limiters on your phone through your settings page. Certain models of headphones also sound louder than others at the same device volume, therefore you could still be at risk of hearing loss, even with an activated volume limiter.


On Apple’s health app there is a ‘headphone audio levels’ feature that monitors your use of headphones. The exposure and duration of sound is listed so you can keep an eye on this and see if you need to change your habits.


If you have children, there are child-friendly headphones available that automatically have volume limiters set so they cannot reach loud levels which could be unsafe.

Top tips to protect yourself when listening through headphones:


• Be mindful of the time spent listening through headphones
• Use over the ear headphones which have less impact on your ear drum/ear canal because the noise source is further away (sound is heard up to 9dB louder with in- ear models than with over-ear headphones at the same device volume)
• Wear noise cancelling headphones (this should prevent you having to turn the volume up to drown out environmental noise)
• Choose headphones that have a superior sound quality so that you are less likely to need to increase the volume
• Keep an eye on the volume by turning it up just enough so that you can hear music comfortably (even turning the volume down slightly can have a big effect on reducing your risk of hearing loss)
• Do not share your headphones as there is a risk of infection (also follow the manufacturers guide on how to clean your headphones)
• Use an app to help you monitor your noise exposure time