Sound Bite: How Your Headphones Might be Causing Permanent Hearing Loss

January 15, 2016

The panic you feel when you forget your headphones isn't the scariest aspect of your smartphone addiction.

By. Kim Tranell

Justina, 17, usually walks around with at least one earbud in. "I actually collect headphones and categorize them from most to least isolating," explains the college student and fashion blogger from Sacramento, California. When she's at home, Justina can be found with both of her favorite leopard-print buds securely planted inside her ears, blasting the Eminem station on Pandora to muscle through homework; in the car she blares Hoodie Allen to drown out her mom's own music. It's her go-to avoidance tactic—a way to relax and tune out the world—as it is for many teens.

Lately, however, Justina has been noticing something funny after she finally turns off her daily soundtrack: "It's almost a special version of concert deafness, but it wears off faster," she says, "like when you come out of a show and can't hear anything except ringing or buzzing." What Justina is describing is actually tinnitus, which is an early indication of potential noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). And according to a report released by the World Health Organization earlier this year, more than a billion teens and young adults are at risk for NIHL due to seemingly harmless everyday habits, like blasting music in their cars—and cranking up the sound on their headphones.

Why the sudden alarm? From ambulance sirens to fire drills, the modern world has been at high volume for a while, and portable audio devices are nothing new (RIP, Walkman). But with streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, this generation is the first to grow up with easy access to an infinite jukebox. When those endless options are being pumped into your ears at heightened levels for longer, the cumulative effect can be downright disastrous. "If we're exposed to a loud enough sound for a long enough period of time, certain parts of the ear can actually die and never come back," explains Craig Kasper, Au.D., chief audiology officer at New York Hearing Doctors.

The parts that Dr. Kasper is referring to are your hair cells, which are the tiny sound receptors in the inner ear. You have, per ear, about 18,000 of them, which can fit on the head of a pin—they're that minuscule and fragile. And once they're gone, they're gone. "It's kind of like broken piano keys," Dr. Kasper says. "The sound will never come out as robust as it once did, no matter how hard you push on them. Eventually you lose the ability to pick up certain pitches."

Bizzy, a 19-year-old rising college sophomore from Chicago, estimates that she spends four hours a day listening to One Direction and Taylor Swift on her iPhone or computer. "Typically I'll have it all the way up, or at least in the highest four bars. If I hear people talking, then I'll crank it louder," she says. "Sometimes you just want to be in your own world and have a little privacy in a public place." Fair enough. But it's exactly this effort to zone out— raising your music to the max in an attempt to drown out everything from the subway to your noisy roommate—that worries experts. When you listen to your phone or MP3 player at full volume, you're pumping about 105 dBA of sound, on average, into your ear canal. "You can safely listen to music at 85 dBA for eight hours, but that's 100 percent of your safe dose of noise for the entire day," explains Deanne Meinke, Ph.D., a professor of audiology at the University of Northern Colorado. "Just 15 minutes of listening at 100 dBA gives you that same 100percent dose. Beyond that, damage can occur over time." Translation: If you're listening that way all day? Ouch. "You don't realize it, but sound is extremely powerful," Dr. Meinke says.

Just ask Tailor, 17, from Colorado, who was diagnosed with NIHL two years ago. Now she deals with sporadic bouts of tinnitus, which can make it impossible to concentrate in class. "You know how when you accidentally hit a glass and it makes that weird ringing noise? Tinnitus is like that, but very close to your ears, so it's really loud," she explains. In conversation, Tailor also sometimes struggles to hear the higher pitches of other girls' voices. "I just want everyone to know how annoying it is," she says. "Most of the damage is irreparable. I will have this for the rest of my life."

Luckily, protecting yourself from NIHL is an easy thing to do. Minor changes to your daily routine will help you keep the damage to a minimum—without sacrificing your soundtrack. Start by choosing the right pair of headphones. Those that are noise canceling use technology to reduce low-frequency sounds in your environment, like humming computer fans, while noise-isolating ones physically block or seal off your ear. Both types allow you to listen to music at lower levels. You can also invest in output-limiting headphones, which automatically cap the volume at a safe level. Of course, noise-isolating buds are great for studying or for drowning out a crying baby on a plane—but not so much for walking around the neighborhood or doing just about any other activity in which you have to be aware of your surroundings.

Next up, set a safe volume limit on your phone or MP3 player. At the very least, eyeball the sound controls to make sure they're only halfway up. If you want extra protection against your tendency to crank it, many devices have a way to limit their max volume. On an iPhone, for example, you can go to Settings > Music > Volume Limit to keep yourself in check.

If you're a headphones addict, there's a fair chance you also care deeply about the quality of your tunes. When hitting your next show, try wearing earplugs. Just one hour at a concert can bombard you with more than 100 times your safe daily dose of noise. If you're concerned about sound quality (like any music junkie would be), you can buy high-fidelity plugs, which start at around $12 and work to preserve the listening experience—just at a reduced level. These babies already have rocker street cred, as some performers currently use them. "The filters really help," says Lucy, 16, who plays in a punk band named Dog Party. "My sister and I sing harmonies a lot, and we need to be able to hear extra well so we stay on key. I have friends who think they don't need earplugs—that they can handle it. But I know that protecting my ears now will let me be a musician and a music fan for life."