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earbuds

Use Earbuds and Headphones Safely

Whether you’re using headphones or earbuds to listen to music or audiobooks, or watch TV or movies, it’s important to control the volume to protect your ears. “The louder the volume, the less time it takes to damage the ears,” said Shelley Berson, MD, a board-certified otolaryngologist, sleep medicine physician, and allergist at Rockland Ear, Nose & Throat Associates in West Nyack. Listening to loud noises can damage the inner ear.

Music played at volumes louder than 85 decibels for long periods can cause permanent hearing loss, she said.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allow workers to listen to 85 decibels for eight hours in a row. But for every three decibels above that, the time that is considered “safe” is divided in half.

Here are some examples of how long it would take to damage your hearing listening to various decibel levels:

  • 6.5 hours of listening to 86 decibels (city traffic)
  • 1.5 hours of listening to 92 decibels (highway traffic)
  • 45 minutes of listening to 95 decibels (jackhammer 50 feet away)
  • 12 minutes of 101 decibels (hand drill at 3 feet away)
  • Less than a minute of 113 decibels (power saw or rock concert)

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, cellphones or listening devices in the United States can produce a maximum of 115 decibels.

“My advice for teens is, if you can’t hear your parents and your music at the same time, it’s too loud,” Dr. Berson noted. “If you experience ear pain while listening or if you experience ringing or hearing loss when you take out your earbuds, it’s also too loud.” She noted that while ringing in the ears or hearing loss after listening to loud music is often temporary, it is a sign you could be contributing to long-term permanent hearing damage.

Use these tips to preserve your hearing when listening to music:

  • Consider using headphones instead of earbuds. “A lot of audiologists recommend over-the-ear headphones, because they’re not as close to the eardrums, so they aren’t as loud,” Dr. Berson said.
  • Set your volume limit on your device to no louder than 70% of possible volume.
  • Don’t listen for too long. Use the 60/60 rule: listen at 60% volume for 60 minutes, then take a break for at least 30 minutes to allow your ears to rest.
  • Noise-cancelling headphones can be a good choice if you listen to music in loud environments—you don’t have to play your music as loud to drown out noise.

“I see people whose hearing has been damaged from years of exposure to noise at work, including musicians,” Dr. Berson said. “It’s important to start protecting your hearing when you’re young. Once you lose hearing, you can’t get it back.”