Hearing loss: Could your headphones be to blame?

Hearing loss: Could your headphones be to blame?

By Lisa Esposito

Earbuds are everywhere: on the street, at school and at work. Compact and convenient, they deliver sound straight to your ear canals with a direct line to eardrums and delicate inner-ear structures. That has a downside, though. Audiologists warn that unsafe earbud use can potentially lead to irreversible, noise-induced hearing loss. 

Nearly half of teens and young adults ages 12 to 25 in middle- and high-income countries are exposed to unsafe sound levels via personal audio devices, according to the World Health Organization. Below, experts give tips for protecting your precious hearing.

Be volume-savvy. While recommendations vary, volume on a device like a music player or smartphone shouldn't be higher than 60 to 80 percent of the maximum setting. The WHO suggests staying at or below 60 percent of the maximum. Most earbuds are made so they don't amplify sounds beyond a certain level, says audiologist Jason Wigand, an assistant professor and clinical director of the cochlear implant program at the University of South Carolina. However, he adds, "the amount of exposure that could be an insult to me is not going to be the same for you or from one person to another."

It's not just how loud, but how long. Again, guidelines vary, but about one to two hours of daily listening at most is considered a good rule of thumb for kids. 

Portable devices such as iPods and iPads include a maximum volume adjustment, which parents can set for kids to a safe volume that enables clear listening in a quiet environment. But that's only a so-so fix, says Brian Fligor, a pediatric audiologist and chief audiology officer at Lantos Technologies. As a hearing researcher, he notes, he has the equipment to determine the sound pressure level and proper volume for children's ears. Most parents don't.

Upgrade if possible. For Rob Jaczko, the chair of music production and engineering at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, sound is his livelihood. Well-fitting earphones protect your ears, block out ambient noise and simply sound better than the standard-issue earbuds that come with your smartphone or listening device, he says. 

"It's the lowest common denominator," Jaczko says. "They just roughly fit in your ear canal. And there's always going to be a measure of ambient noise on the subway, in the car, even in your room that you need to turn the volume up more loudly to overcome to hear the music."

The ETY-Kids headphone is probably the safest headphone for young listeners, says Fligor, who does independent assessments of the product. "The level it is limited to is low enough that it would take a very, very long time of use for a child to damage their hearing," he says. The headphone blocks out background noise, he adds. Made by Etymotic Research, ETY-Kids headphones start at $39.

Carry protection. Inserting earplugs at strategic times protects ears from noxious sounds like heavy construction work or a super-loud concert. Jaczko copes with chronic ringing in his ears, or tinnitus, likely from years as a drummer. So he makes sure his kids have hearing protection on hand. He used to send them out with a bag full of standard foam plugs. Since then, his family members have been fitted for custom ear protection. 

Consider noise-canceling headphones. Blocking out unwanted sound lets you listen to the sounds of your choice at safe levels. Noise-canceling earphones can also act as earplugs, Fligor says. His company makes the Uvero headphone, which is custom-fit for the ear at $269. Among other makers, he praises Bose's noise-canceling headphones, which start at about $300. Consumer Reports offers a detailed headphone buying guide. 

Take tinnitus seriously. Unlike gradual loss of hearing acuity, people notice tinnitus, Wigand says, especially in quieter surroundings. "Anybody who's ever been to a concert or a club knows what it's like to walk out and their ears are ringing," he says. Listening to loud headphones can have the same effect on kids, he says, so ask them if that's happening. Tinnitus is linked to greater degrees of higher-frequency hearing loss, Wigand says, with middle and lower frequencies often affected as well. 

Fligor, who served as director of audiology at Boston Children's Hospital until 2013, says tinnitus among teens is common enough that he started a clinic there for just such cases, which were almost all noise-induced.

Be alert to subtle signs. When everyday bells and whistles are fading, that's a cause for concern. Be aware of your hearing acuity, Wigand says. Computer sounds, the microwave beeping and your phone's ringing should all catch your attention and be easily heard. If not, he says, have your (or your child's) hearing checked. 

Notice when kids listen lessIf your kid's school performance is suddenly slipping, or he or she is uncharacteristically ignoring your voice, there could be a variety of reasons. One possibility is decreased hearing acuity. Wigand describes telling signs: "They seem like they're not paying attention in class as well, the teacher says. Not really a part of group discussions anymore. Kind of sitting in the back of class, not really participating. When you call them from downstairs, do they answer you right away?" 

Have hearing checked. "Part of respecting your ears is that at some point, every couple of years, you get your hearing tested," Fligor says. "That means going to see an audiologist. The good news is that testing is covered by insurance, usually." Subtle changes to hearing may develop slowly, Fligor says: "If you catch it early on and change behaviors, it's not going to get worse." 

Practice safe sound. One way to get through to kids is to bring up the people around them, Wigand says. "If the person next to you can hear the music or the actual amplified sound coming out of your earphones, it's too loud," he says. "Just because you've got your earphones on, if you're in study hall or the library, you very well may be interrupting somebody else."