Cochlear damage, outer ear infections and more risks of using earphones for extended periods of time
Chronic ear infections are not just painful and uncomfortable, but also have the potential to lead to permanent hearing loss.
It might not be music to your ears, but hearing impairment is one of the most common chronic conditions that disabled people across the world. The World Health Organisation reports the prevalence of hearing loss to be 5.3 percent globally, meaning about 360 million people are affected.
A study in the European Journal of Public Health in 2013 suggests that hearing impairment is higher among children, adolescents and young adults in middle- and low-income countries, indicating that a majority of current hearing impairment cases are not age-related but affected by lifestyle factors.
Many other studies have persistently pointed out that one of the lifestyle factors that most contribute to hearing damage and loss is the use of headphones or earphones. Loud noise has always been linked to hearing loss in the industrial scenario, but the recently increased dependence on digital devices for work and leisure has led to a spike in the use of personal sound equipment or earphones. Long-term exposure to this type of non-occupational noise can and does affect your otological (pertaining to the ear and auditory system) health.
The long term damaging effects of earphones
Overuse of earphones can affect your ears in a number of ways. As a study in PLoS One in 2016 points out, our environment is anyways filled with chemicals which are ototoxic or harmful to the ears. Lead exposure in particular — which occurs from fuel, paint, canned foods, old pipes in the drinking water system, plastic, battery and cosmetics — is a leading cause of concern.
But when you add overuse of earphones to this environment, it creates a more hazardous ecosystem for your auditory system with increased risks of hearing damage. The harm done on your ears by earphones is, therefore, additional but not little in any way at all. In fact, this damage can be even more intense.
Inner ear or cochlear damage due to earphones
Earphone usage basically affects the inner and outer ears in different ways. According to a study in Adolescent Health, Medicine and Therapeutics in 2016, there are two major factors involving earphones that contribute to hearing impairment -- the duration of use and threshold of volume (which is measured in decibels or dB). Prolonged exposure to both these factors can damage the cells and nerves in your inner ear (or cochlea), leading to cochlear damage. This damage can be temporary or permanent.
Another research in Noise and Health in 2017 studied the effects of earphone sound thresholds and was able to determine that people who listen to 90-100db of sound levels for longer periods of time — even during sleep — are at the greatest risk of developing hearing impairments due to inner ear damage. Those who listen to moderate sound levels for shorter durations are likely to be at a lower risk in comparison.
Outer ear infections due to earphone use
A study in the Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences in 2002, on the other hand, explained the peculiar way in which earphone usage can damage your outer ear. This study explains that prolonged earphone usage increases the temperature and humidity in the outer ear canal -- thus creating the perfect environment for bacterial and fungal growth. Abrasions or cuts occur when the earphones rub against the skin of the ears, and this provides the mechanism through which external ear infections can easily take root. This risk is much higher when you use earphones with harder earbuds.
Chronic ear infections are not just painful and uncomfortable, but also have the potential to lead to permanent hearing loss. Caring for your inner and outer ear should, therefore, be taken seriously, since the use of earphones is not completely avoidable these days.
For more information, read our article on Hearing loss: Symptoms, causes, treatment and prevention.
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