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University of South Florida

Earbud Usage Limits

Earbuds have become so integrated into many of our daily activities, we don’t even think about them. So compact, they fit in our ear and work right into our lives seamlessly. We listen to music, catch a game, or the news all while we are on the go.

Earbuds deliver louder sound exposures when the volume is increased than over-the-ear headphones. They also deliver them directly into the ear. Everyone loves the sound quality and convenience of earphones, but in the long run they carry bigger risks when it comes to damaging precious hearing. Hearing damage is caused by the sound volume not the proximity to the sound in the ear, so keeping the volume at a reasonable level is important.

“Whether using earbuds, earphones or headphones, moderation is key. Avoiding excessive use of listening devices altogether will go a long way in preventing hearing loss,” Dr. Kestutis Boyev of USF Health Otolaryngology (ENT) said. “We recommend the 60/60 rule, listening at 60 percent volume for a maximum of 60 minutes.”


How loud is too loud? There are many sounds that we don’t even think of as loud, but having an awareness of their decibel levels can save our hearing. Any sound over 85dB (Decibels) has the potential to cause harm, especially if you are exposed to it for a long time.

  • Normal conversation – 60 dB
  • Heavy city traffic – 85 dB
  • Lawn mower – 90 dB
  • MP3 player at maximum volume – 105 dB
  • Sirens – 120 dB
  • Concerts – 120 dB
  • Sporting events – 105 to 130 dB (depending on the venue)
  • Firearms – 150 dB

Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL)

Of the roughly forty million Americans suffering from hearing loss,ten million can be attributed to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) shares how noise induced hearing loss occurs in the ear.

  • Sound vibrations reach the cochlea after being transmitted by the eardrum and ossicles (chain of small bones connecting eardrum to cochlea):
  • As the hair cells move up and down, microscopic hair-like projections (known as stereocilia) that perch on top of the hair cells bump against an overlying structure and bend. Bending causes pore-like channels, which are at the tips of the stereocilia, to open up. When that happens, chemicals rush into the cell, creating an electrical signal.
  • The auditory nerve carries this electrical signal to the brain, which translates it into a sound that we recognize and understand.
  • Most noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) is caused by the damage and eventual death of these hair and nerve cells.

NIHL is caused by exposure to loud sounds on a one-time basis, such as a very loud unexpected sound like a blast or from listening to loud sound over an extended period.  It cannot be medically or surgically corrected.

Signs of Hearing Loss

Hearing loss can be a result of many other causes besides noise induced hearing loss including aging, injury, and infection. Regardless of the cause, if you are experiencing any of the following signs of hearing loss, it’s important to have your hearing tested.

  • Ringing, roaring, hissing or buzzing in the ear
  • Difficulty understanding speech in noisy places or places with poor acoustics
  • Muffled sounds and a feeling that your ear is plugged
  • Listening to the TV or radio at a higher volume than in the past
  • Trouble hearing consonants
  • Frequently asking others to speak more slowly, clearly and loudly
  • Withdrawal from conversations
  • Avoidance of some social settings

“The importance of identifying early hearing loss is to prevent future hearing loss,” Dr. Boyev said. If you work in a noisy environment, consider regular hearing tests. Plastic earplugs or glycerin-filled earmuffs can help protect your ears from damaging noise.

“To prevent noise induced hearing loss, be careful with the level of volume and duration of time using earbuds, earphones, and over-the-ear headphones. Remember the 60/60 rule, listening at 60 percent volume for 60 minutes. Early detection is essential, so we recommend getting your hearing checked as soon as possible if you think you may have a hearing problem,” Dr. Boyev said. 

To make an appointment to get your hearing checked, contact USF Health Otolaryngology at (813) 974-4683.

Written By: Kathleen Rogers

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