Could noise canceling headphones prevent hearing loss?

Earbuds get a bad rap in the hearing health world. These devices are designed to blast sound directly into the ear and can go as loud as a jet engine. As hearing health specialists, we are pretty wary about these devices! Having said that, some personal hearing devices could actually help prevent hearing loss if used correctly.

Could noise canceling headphones prevent hearing loss?

by Dr. Kevin Ivory

The dangers of noise for our ears

Noise-induced hearing loss is damage to the inner ear because of loud noise. If a sound is too loud, it can destroy the tiny hair cells in your ears responsible for sending signals to your brain to be read as sounds. Sounds at or above 85 decibels (dB) can damage hearing over time.

How much damage you have depends on how close you are to the source of the sound, how loud it is, how long you're exposed to it, and how often.

Noise-induced hearing loss can affect one ear or both ears. It usually happens gradually over time and typically affects high frequencies first. As a result, people with NIHL may have difficulty understanding speech that contains s, f, and other high-pitched sounds.

People with NIHL sometimes report ringing in their ears (tinnitus), which may be temporary or permanent.

The irresponsible use of earbuds and headphones has been identified as a major cause of hearing loss by the World Health Organization. Could noise-canceling headphones help? Let's take a look. 

Noise-canceling headphones

Bose first introduced active noise-canceling headphones in the 1980s. However, they were costly, and it took until the 2000s for them to become more widespread. Today, noise-canceling headphones are everywhere. They've become an essential piece of gear for commuters, frequent flyers, and anyone who wants to drown out the world around them — whether in the office or their family at home.

Noise-canceling headphones come in two varieties that can protect your hearing in two different ways.

Passive noise-canceling (PNC) headphones are soundproofing headphones with a heavy-duty design that isolates your ears from outside noise. PNC headphones are often tight-fitting and heavy, but they are good at drowning out sound, incredibly explosive transient sounds like gunshots and firecrackers, and high-frequency sounds like a baby crying or a dog howling.

To "eliminate" external sounds, active noise-canceling (ANC) headphones use sound-matching technology. They work by detecting the pitch of an adjacent ambient sound, such as the whir of a jet engine or the collective hum of a crowded coffee shop; they work best in environments where the overall sound and level remain consistent.

How do noise-canceling headphones protect your hearing?

For the most part, noise-canceling headphones protect your ears from both active and passive noise.

PNC headphones preserve your hearing by isolating your ears from harsh external sounds, especially transitory sounds like gunshots or explosions. People who work in noisy environments but need to communicate, such as pilots or construction workers running heavy machinery, can benefit from PNC headphones.

Because noise-canceling technology effectively blocks the outside world, it allows you to enjoy the music you love without playing it at dangerously high volumes. There's also no need to increase the volume when traveling on noisy public transport or walking through busy city streets, which means you can listen to your favorite album again and again without going deaf!

However, because ANC headphones rely only on the ANC function and do not provide the protective sealing that PNC headphones do, they will not shield you from sudden, explosive sounds. 

In all cases, a pair of headphones with a PNC structure and ANC technology would provide the best protection.

Should I get noise-canceling headphones that are passive or active?

PNC headphones are the way to go if you want to protect your ears from loud or high-frequency sounds. ANC headphones aren't good at adapting to and protecting you from ephemeral noises since they take time to locate and match environmental sounds. However, if you're just seeking ear protection, protective earmuffs are probably the way to go.

If you want to block out the continual hum of public transportation, bustling streets, and packed offices, ANC headphones can help. By listening to music at lower volumes, as ANC headphones allow you to do, you can significantly reduce your risk of noise-induced hearing loss.

Don't forget about the responsible use of personal hearing devices.

To safeguard your ears, you must be aware of the volume you are listening to. It's preferable not to play music louder than 60 or 70 decibels, which is about the same volume as normal conversation. Place a volume cap on your smartphone that won't let you crank it up more than 60% to avoid turning it up too loudly. This allows you to listen for extended periods without hurting your ears.

It's also essential to take a break when listening for a while. Because your ears require rest and recovery time, including this in your listening habits will safeguard them. The 60/60 rule is a great place to start. Only listen at a volume of about 60% and for a maximum of 60 minutes per session. Taking a short break every hour can help prevent hearing loss.

If you believe your hearing is already damaged, we can help! Contact us today to set up a consultation with Dr. Kevin Ivory

Written by
Reviewed by
Dr. Kevin H. Ivory
Audiologist & University Instructor
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Dr. Kevin Ivory, Au.D., CCC-A received his Bachelor of Arts (Psychology) Degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He then went on to earn his Doctor of Audiology degree from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, one of the top 10 audiology residential programs in the country.

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