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Earphones vs headphones: Experts reveal which is better and whether using them all day impact ear health

ByZarafshan Shiraz, Delhi
Feb 23, 2023 06:46 PM IST

According to WHO, the environmental noise levels should be below 70 dB over 24 hours. If it is even increased by 5 decibels, then the exposure time has to be reduced to 7-8 hours. So, are earphones better or headphones and does using them all day impact ear health?

Smartphones and smart devices have become integral with our existence now and increasing number of people, especially adolescents and young adults spend hours together using various portable audio devices like headphones, earphones and air pods. Post the Covid-19 pandemic, another big contribution to this category has been made by the working-class adults who have now taken to sitting in front of their laptops for hours, having to attend countless hours of meetings and discussions, which, earlier, would have been held in person.

Earphones vs headphones: Experts reveal which is better and whether using them all day impact ear health (Photo by Eran Menashri on Unsplash)
Earphones vs headphones: Experts reveal which is better and whether using them all day impact ear health (Photo by Eran Menashri on Unsplash)

Several studies have pointed out that two main risk factors for hearing loss are use of portable audio devices and attending concerts or clubs, both of which expose teens to high intensity music for long periods. A lot of studies indicate that most people have symptoms such as tinnitus, temporary hearing loss and noise-induced hearing loss because there is not sufficient education on how to use portable audio devices at reasonable noise levels and moderate lengths of time to protect hearing.

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The results of another study indicate that adolescents who listen to loud music using earphones in an already noisy environment or who used earphones for more than 80 minutes per day on average in a noisy environment had a significantly higher risk of hearing loss. People are more likely to listen to music at a louder volume than environmental noise especially in subways and buses where the average noise level is 80 db.

Ear health has two aspects - one is taking care of your hearing and the other is preventing the ear from any sort of infection thus keeping it healthy. According to WHO,the environmental noise levels should be below 70 dB over 24 hours. If it is even increased by 5 decibels, then the exposure time has to be reduced to 7-8 hours.

In an interview with HT Lifestyle, Dr Abhilasha Sadhoo, MBBS, MS ENT, Fellowship in Head and Neck Surgery Consultant at Department of ENT and Head and Neck Oncosurgery at Belenus Champion Hospitals and Dr Meenu Krishnan, MBBS, MS ENT, Registrar at Department of ENT, shared, “The mechanism by which how loud noise can induce hearing loss is through damage to the cochlear hair cells. If one is exposed to loud earphone noise for an extended period of time, the inner ear can become fatigued and the auditory nerve can become insensitive, which induces temporary noise-induced hearing loss. In a severe case, exposure to loud noise increases the risk of causing a permanent hearing loss. Another rising concern is of the static magnetic field that originates from these audio devices and their impact on hearing and audiological and neurological health.”

They added, “There is hence an increasingly important need to educate our youth about the problems with using these devices recklessly and on how to promote healthy listening behaviours. Most studies recommend to use these devices at less than 60dB intensities for a duration of 1-3 hrs. a day. It is also important to avoid using these devices in areas where the environmental noise is significantly higher, like in buses, malls and gyms. It is advised to keep the devices clean and maintain good hygiene of the ears to prevent excessive sweating and subsequently harbouring of various bacterial infections.”

According to Dr Manjunath MK, Consultant ENT surgeon at SPARSH Hospital, “One must keep their ear healthy and not use earbuds to clean the wax. The wax in the ear is a cleaning material, it traps dust from outside and avoids infections in the ears. If you use q tips or earbuds to clean the ear, you will in fact be pushing the wax inside. To keep your ears healthy it is better to avoid the usage of q tips. The ear has a self cleaning mechanism. Whenever we eat and chew, due to the jaw moments the wax tends to fall down on its own, so there is no need to clean the ears. After taking a bath you can dry it up with a towel and not with ear buds.”

He suggested, “If you are using earphones, keep the intensity as low as possible. There is something called the “60-60 rule”. Keep the volume upto 60% of maximum and should be used for less than 60 mins. If the usage of earphones are for more than 60 mins and more than 60% of the intensity, then you are at risk of developing something called as NIHL (Noise induced hearing loss).”

Talking about how does using earphones everyday impact your ear health, he said, “The loud noise from the earphones can impact your hearing. If you are using earphones for most of the time in a day, then it breaks the 60% intensity -60 minute rule. Try to reduce the volume and use it for a short duration whenever possible to avoid damage to your ears.”

As for whether using earphones/earbuds cause infection in the ear, he said, “As mentioned earlier, ears have a self cleaning mechanism. If you are constantly using earphones, you are obstructing the outflow of wax, the wax then tends to get accumulated because of which could give rise to an infection in the ear. Headphones are relatively better than earphones. They also do not interfere with the drainage mechanism of the ears.”

He recommended the following dos:

  • Reduce the amount of time you use earphones/ headphones in a day
  • If you are working in a noisy environment, then limit the amount of time you spend in that particular place or use earplugs. The WHO recommends 75 decibels for 8 hours and if you are exposing yourself to more than that, then you have to use earplugs to prevent hearing loss.

He recommended the following don’ts:

  • Do not listen to music with high volume
  • Do not use q tips to clean the earwax
  • Do not use unnecessary ear drops unless it is recommended by a doctor. If you have ear pain, take paracetamol.
  • While traveling in a flight, during takeoff and landing, ears tend to get blocked. This is caused due to the pressure difference between the outer ear and middle ear. Swallowing your saliva or chewing gums can help to open up the tube that connects the middle ear and the nose thereby equalizing the pressure between the outer ear and middle ear, thus preventing ear pain.

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