Ear buds: Are they really all that dangerous?
You’d better believe it!
As early as the 1980’s, audiologists (spets in testing hearing) began noticing hearing loss in folks using the Walkman and other portable music devices which utilized ear phones. A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010 warned that nearly 1 in 5 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 have significant hearing loss. As difficult as it is to keep kids’ attention in school, we certainly don’t need to also have to deal with the loss of their hearing.
Ear buds are particularly efficient at producing loud volume. They fit tightly in the ear and are much closer to the eardrum than ear phones. That tight fit ensures all the sound energy is focused on the hearing mechanism, as opposed to ear phones which allow some sound to escape. Measured sound levels from ear buds can be as high as 110 decibels, equivalent to a rock concert, a power saw at 3 feet, or a chain saw. The source of the music — smart phone, iPod, or other MP3-type device — doesn’t matter. Noise-cancelling earphones are safer, as they block extraneous noise, thus allowing the music to be played at a lower volume. However, even though they are becoming more popular (just check out any football team as they are walking from the bus into the stadium), they are more expensive than the ear buds.
A good rule of thumb is to advise kids (and their parents) to pay attention to the volume of your music source. If someone next to you can hear the music from your ear buds, then it is loud enough to damage your hearing. As someone who wears hearing aids, I spend a great deal of time warning my young patients that they only get one set of ears – take good care of them.
Geoffrey T. Harter, M.D.