Technology is the most necessary evil of our times and one such necessity currently is that of earphones/headphones. While taking early morning walk, crossing the street, boarding a metro, traveling in a bus, sipping coffee in a café or just a call in the office, throughout the day you will encounter several people listening to music or talking through earphones. However, by letting your earphones plugged in too much, you might not be disturbing the people around you, but you certainly are harming yourself enough without taking note of it.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that around a billion young people across the globe could be at the risk of hearing loss because of the unsafe listening habits, they practice through earphones.
The primary concern with the headphones is the volume exposure that they give the ears. Earphones are capable of producing very loud levels of sound very close to the ear and hence are very dangerous. However, it must be noted that it is not always about the volume of the headphones but also the long duration for which the earphones are used. Earphones are exposed to germs also as they are exposed to too many places where they are kept. Sharing the earphones paves way for the transfer of these germs which further induces harmful effects on ears.
How does this noise harm?
Earphones produce sound waves that reach our ears, making the eardrum vibrate. This vibration spreads to the inner ear via the small bones and reaches the cochlea which is a chamber in the inner ear which is filled with a fluid and consists of thousands of small’ hairs’. When this vibration reaches the cochlea, the fluid vibrates making the hairs also move. The louder the sound, the stronger the vibrations and the more the hairs move.
The continuous and long-term exposure to loud music makes the hair cells to eventually lose their sensitivity to vibration. Sometimes the loud music also results in the cells bending or folding over which leads to the sensation of temporary hearing loss. The hair cells may or may not recover from these extreme vibrations. However, even when they recover, they mostly cannot function normally which can cause permanent hearing loss or deafness and is almost impossible to be recovered from.
Some of the harmful ways in which earphones can affect our ears are:
- NIHL: It is not only about the volume that you expose your ears to through those earphones but also the duration that can lead to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).
- Tinnitus: The damaged hair cells in cochlea can result in a ringing, buzzing, or roaring noise in the ear or the head. This consequential electrical noise is called tinnitus.
- Hyperacusis: More than 50% of the people who suffer from tinnitus are prone to develop high sensitivity to normal environmental sounds too. This condition is referred to as Hyperacusis.
- Hearing Loss: As mentioned above, loud music or long exposure tends to make the hair cells bend down too much and severely, the extent of which can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss.
- Dizziness: Many times, the increased pressure in the ear canal due to loud noise can also result in dizziness.
- Ear infections: Since the earphones are directly placed into the ear canal, they block the passage of air which enhances the chances of infections in the ear. The regular and long-term use of earphones also increases the growth of bacteria. These bacteria stay on the earphones and on more usage infect the ear. When the earphones are shared, the same bacteria from one person’s ear transfer to the other person, exposing the person also to serious ear infections.
- Excessive ear wax: Using the earphones for a long time also develops excessive ear wax which further accelerates the chances of tinnitus, hearing difficulty, earache, and frequent ear infections.
- Pain in the ears: Long-term usage of earphones as well as using earphones that poorly fit can induce pain that can often extend to the inner ear as well, leading to soreness in the vicinity of the ear i.e. from the jaws to the top of the head.
- Effect on the brain: The electromagnetic waves that the headphones generate result in problems for the brain as well in the long term. High decibel noise levels withdraw insulation from nerve fibers that carry signals from the ear to the brain. Ear infections can also affect the brain.
One can save the ear from any severe damage through the earphones by being aware of the consequences and by making small habitual changes. Some tips to avoid ear damage include:
- The most basic change is to not keep the volume very high
- Restrict your exposure to loud noise as well as the duration
- Make use of noise-canceling headphones
- Use over-the-ear-model to avoid direct sound vibrations to the eardrums as well as direct contact with the ear canal
- Regularly sanitize the headphones to stop a buildup of bacteria, sweat and shed skin
- Avoid using earphones when traveling by car, bus, train or even walking. Traveling in an already noisy public transport, adds to the decibel level due to the surrounding sound.
Contributed by Dr. Santosh S, Consultant – ENT, Columbia Asia Hospital Hebbal