So you go about your daily activities while wearing headphones. However, after a while, your ears begin to itch. You try to ignore it, but it only gets worse. You eventually give in and begin scratching, only to feel something wet (and stinky) on your ears. Gross!
You start to wonder, “Did I do this to myself?” Is it possible for headphones to cause ear infections? Your concern is not unfounded. You may be wondering if you should completely avoid using headphones or earbuds.
But that also means saying goodbye to private listening sessions and all of your money spent on upgrading your equipment.
But don’t worry; we’ve read the studies and compiled everything you need to know in this comprehensive guide. So keep reading to learn the real story behind the link between headphones and ear infections, as well as some tips on how to avoid the worst.
CAN HEADPHONES CAUSE EAR INFECTIONS?
When worn incorrectly, headphones can cause ear infections. However, you do not need to throw away your headphones just yet.
In fact, a study of 136 customer service representatives discovered only four cases of chronic middle ear infection and no cases of external ear canal infections caused by headphones. That’s less than 3% of people who work with headsets as a profession.
HEADPHONES CAUSING EAR INFECTIONS
While the numbers in the previous study appear to be low, another study looking at bacterial loads in the ears discovered that frequent use of headphones increases bacterial growth. This is because earbuds promote bacterial growth in your ear by blocking air passages.
Moisture is also trapped and stagnates. The presence of bacteria does not always indicate the presence of an infection. However, an unbalanced and unmanaged increase in bacteria will exacerbate the problem.
Despite this, the study never mentioned avoiding the use of headphones or earbuds due to the risk of infection. This is because, in the end, the issue is one of usage.
For example, the study found that bacteria can spread from one person to another when unclean earbuds are shared, resulting in ear infections. Similarly, ear infections cannot be blamed solely on the type of headphones used, but also on how long they are worn and whether or not they are cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis.
WHAT CAUSES EAR INFECTIONS?
When we put things in our ears (like earbuds), we mess with the biological systems already in place to protect them. As a result, sometimes we end up with ear infections. Here is what’s actually going on:
1. Bacteria + moisture
The inside of your ears are dark and moist, which are ideal conditions for bacteria. This is because darkness protects them from the sun’s bacteria-killing UV light, whereas moisture turns them into a literal breeding ground for bacteria.
This combination creates an environment in which a dangerous bacteria outbreak can quickly become out of control. Unfortunately, wearing headphones or earbuds can exacerbate these two issues.
As previously stated, studies have revealed a direct link between improper earphone usage and bacterial growth. This is caused by changes in moisture movement in the ears as well as the introduction of bacteria from outside sources via earbuds.
The use of earbuds (or very sealed headphones) for an extended period of time seals off the ear canal from the outside world. As a result, moisture that should evaporate accumulates in the ears. Bacteria that enter the ear canal through your earbuds may find this environment tolerable, leading to infection.
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2. Earwax build-up
Earwax is not harmful in and of itself. It protects your ear canal from bacteria, viruses, dust, and other foreign particles. The wax slowly flows through your ears, coating everything.
However, earwax can become a dangerous source of infection if it is repeatedly pushed back into your ear, a condition known as ear impaction. The repeated insertion of earbuds or IEMs is a common source of this type of pushing.
The pushed-back earwax forms a “dam” in your ear canal. This dam reduces the protective coating that the rest of your ear receives, leaving it vulnerable to infection. It also prevents moisture and old wax from entering your eardrum, causing disease. If this is the case for you, continue reading to learn how to properly clean your ears.
3. Scrapes on ear canal
If you’re pushing your earbuds in too roughly or too often, scrapes could break through your protective earwax layer or penetrate the sensitive skin of your inner ear, leading to infection.
For pediatric ear scrapes, consult a trusted medical source and/or a physician. Other things to consider are as follows:
- Burrs or nicks on hard plastic earbuds can be sharp and cause scraping.
- Gentle insertion of earbuds is recommended. Please don’t force it!
- If possible, buy custom fit, or semi-custom fit earbuds.
HOW TO PREVENT EAR INFECTIONS WHEN USING HEADPHONES OR EARBUDS?
We can significantly reduce our chances of contracting an infection by employing a few common-sense precautions. In the world of headphones, the following guidelines are the equivalents of masking and handwashing.
- Always keep your headphones or earbuds clean.
- You should clean your ears.
- Never lend out your headphones or earbuds.
- Permit your ears to breathe.
1. Always keep your headphones or earbuds clean.
Cleaning and sanitizing headphones and earbuds can help prevent the spread of the most dangerous infections. Experts recommend doing this once a week or whenever earwax buildup is visible in the grooves of your earbuds.
The majority of earbud cleaning can be accomplished with an ethanol wipe. To reduce the chances of infection, read our earbuds cleaning guide or AirPods cleaning guide for a more in-depth overview.
Doctors have also discovered unexpected health benefits from cleaning earbuds on a regular basis, such as avoiding getting something stuck in your ear. Frequent cleaning would have given the patient time to inspect the device and ensure it was working properly (or at least have complete parts).
Alternative Video: Earbuds Can Increase Risk of Ear Infections
2. Clean your ears
Mom always told you to clean behind your ears, but have you ever been taught how to clean inside your ears? While your ears are usually capable of self-cleaning, if you have an earwax backup, cleaning is required.
The backed-up wax will start to collect bacteria and retain moisture. At the most basic level, experts advise wiping the outside of your ears with a damp cloth.
Contrary to popular belief, never insert solid objects into your ears, as this can aggravate ear wax buildup or even cause eardrum damage. Rather than putting something in your ear, try using an ear wax softener. Irrigating your ears with a syringe is one of the more advanced techniques.
3. Never share your headphones or earbuds
Putting one earbud in your ear and another in your lover’s is a classic, but risky, way to bond over music. In-eas can easily transmit bacteria from your ear to your partner. Pathogens that are commonly ‘traded’ include yeast (think yeast infection) and the bacteria that causes swimmer’s ear.
However, as people return to work and school computer labs reopen, some of us will be forced to share headphones. We’ve previously written about what to do when forced to share headphones, but here are the essentials:
- Try using disposable headphone covers.
- Clean before usage.
- Make the office staff aware of the importance of replacing ear cushions regularly.
- Keep up your ear cleaning routine.
4. Allow your ears to breathe
Overuse of headphones can result in ear infections. Absolutely! Earbuds and headphones both reduce airflow and contribute to moisture and earwax buildup in the ear.
The Malaysian Ministry of Health recently recommended that people not wear headphones for more than 90 minutes per day. Of course, this isn’t just about wax.
Prolonged headphone use can also cause ear damage due to high volume levels. We’ve created a guide to help you learn if your headphones are too loud because it’s not always easy for us to tell until it’s too late.
WHAT ARE THE OTHER HEALTH ISSUES ASSOCIATED WITH HEADPHONE USE?
Aside from ear infections, improper use of headphones and earbuds can cause more problems. Unfortunately, some can be irreparable and can become worse if it happens at the same time as your headphones-related ear infection.
Here are the most common health issues caused by inappropriate headphone usage:
1. Hearing loss & impairment
We’ve all heard that listening to loud music can harm your ears and cause hearing loss. Experts warn that prolonged exposure to loud sounds, particularly through headphones, can result in tinnitus and hyperacusis.
Tinnitus is a condition that causes an unwanted ringing in the ear, even in quiet environments, and is caused by prolonged exposure to loud noises.
Hyperacusis is a complex disease characterized by hypersensitivity to specific sounds. While the exact cause is unknown, tinnitus, hearing loss, loud noise exposure, and frequent ear infections have all been linked to the condition.
2. Ear pain
Ear pain is frequently associated with ear infections; however, not all ear pain is caused by an ear infection. According to research, prolonged use of headphones and earbuds can also cause pain.
Ill-fitting or overly tight headphones can put too much pressure on the soft flesh of the outer ear or stretch the sensitive inner-ear cartilage.
If your ears hurt while wearing headphones, look for padding made of memory foam, velour, or leather. Consider custom-made (or semi-custom, as in the Queen of Audio Vesper) IEMs and earbuds to find the perfect fit for your ear.
3. Ear numbness
Ear numbness, for the most part, occurs for the same reasons that ear pain does, as described above. The same advice applies in these cases: wear looser headphones, appropriately sized earbuds/IEMs, and wear them properly.
People who frequently use headphones (such as those who work from home) are at risk of another type of ear numbness known as Acoustic Shock Injury (ASI). ASI is triggered by sudden exposure to unbearably loud sounds.
Grounded noises from your headphones, yelling from the other end of the call, and loud echoes are all examples. The condition causes burning, numbness, and a sense of blockage in the ear. There have also been reports of tinnitus, vertigo, and psychological shock.
Ear numbness can also be a sign of stroke or diabetes. This article is not intended to be taken as medical advice in place of a doctor. If you have any health concerns, please seek medical attention with a trained professional.
4. Otitis Externa
Otitis Externa, also known as swimmer’s ear, begins as an itchy rash and quickly progresses to pain if left untreated. In the United States alone, over 2 million people seek medical attention for otitis externa each year.
This disease is usually spread through one of two routes: water or injury. The term “swimmer’s ear” comes from the fact that any activity that exposes the insides of your ear to water on a regular basis can cause the illness.
The route we’re interested in is slightly different, though: injury. As mentioned earlier, scrapes on the ear canal can be caused by roughly inserting earbuds, earplugs, or other objects in your ears. Your earbuds may also break a hole through your protective wax layer, your ear’s natural protective armor, leaving your ear defenseless to infection.
WHY YOU SHOULD CLEAN YOUR HEADPHONES?
There are several reasons for this, and if you share headphones with others, the logic is quite clear. You have no idea where their ears have been (jokes aside, they could have an ear infection that they are spreading).
Even if you don’t share your headphones, leaving them on surfaces, picking them up by the cups with dirty hands, or simply leaving them somewhere where someone might cough or sneeze on them inadvertently can expose you to germs that can cause an infection.
These germs, depending on the cover material of your ear cups, can seep into the sponge, wreaking havoc and causing recurring infections (161-page study).
So, how should you clean your headphones? Use a damp soapy cloth (be careful not to damage the electronics with too much moisture – wipe it dry afterward) or some isopropyl alcohol.
To get rid of any bacteria in the sponges, remove them and thoroughly wash them. After that, place them in the sun to dry.
According to a 2019 study, if you’ve done that a couple of times, it might be a good idea to replace the ear cup pads, as any damaged cover material can actually scratch your ears, leading to outer ear infections. If you are prone to infections, you should replace the earpads on your headphones 2 to 3 times per year.
HOW TO CLEAN YOUR HEADPHONES?
Cleaning your headphones or earphones should be done daily. There are a few things to keep in mind to make sure you clean them properly, and that you don’t damage them.
1. Don’t run your headphones under water. Unless stated otherwise, your headphones are probably not waterproof, and even if they were, I wouldn’t recommend running them under water or using invasive methods to clean them.
2. Use a soft, dry, lint-free cloth to clean off excess wax and dirt. A good cloth will remove any wax or dirt effectively, eliminating the need for soapy water.
3. If your headphones have been exposed to anything that could cause stains or damage, such as hairspray, perfume, sunscreen, or other similar products, take the following steps:
- Wipe away the substance with a damp, lint-free cloth and immediately dry them with a new cloth.
- Use a dry cloth rather than a wet one, as this can allow water or moisture into the electronics.
- Do not plug them in again for at least 10 minutes; if any moisture got into the speakers, this will allow it to dry and prevent any damage.
4. If the speaker mesh is dirty, use a dry swab to loosen the dirt and clean it.
5. Never use a sharp metal object to clean anything on your headphones, not only is this a danger in terms of being shocked, but it will also damage your headphones.
HOW TO CLEAN EARPHONE TIPS OR HEADPHONE EAR COVERS?
Earphones – Earphone tips are the soft silicone pieces that go over the hard earphone shell. They are easily removable and cleanable. To re-energize them, follow these steps:
- Removable tips are simple to clean; simply pop them off and clean them with lukewarm water. They are made of silicone, so a good wash will not harm them.
- After you’ve finished cleaning them, set them out in the sun to dry for an hour or so.
- Make sure they’re completely dry before reattaching them to your earphones. To get in between the folds, use a soft cotton swab.
- Replace the tips on your earphones and enjoy squeaky clean, germ-free sound.
Headphones – Some headphones come with removable ear pads, which comes in really handy when you want to clean them. They can get a bit stinky (is that just me??), so this is quite nice:
- Remove the ear pads from your headphones if they are removable.
- Prepare a bowl of soapy water by dissolving half a spoon of soap in 250ml of lukewarm water.
- Soak your earphone pad sponges for about 15 minutes, cushion side down and leather (or velour, pleather, or whatever) facing up. It’s preferable if you can avoid the soaking.
- After 15 minutes, gently push the cushion with your fingers to expel the water before soaking it up again.
- Clean the material with a small amount of water on a cloth.
- Remove the dirty water from the bowl and replace it with lukewarm clean water.
- Step 4 should be repeated with clean water.
- Take a dry cloth and wrap the ear pads in them, pressing them against a hard surface to remove any excess water.
- Let them dry in front of a heater or fan for a few hours before putting them back on. You got yourself some clean, smell-free headphone ear pads.
While it is possible to get an ear infection and spread it through headphones, these simple precautions will help you avoid it in the future. Even if you aren’t sharing headphones, cleaning them on a regular basis and keeping your own ears clean will help you avoid recurring infections.
CONCLUSION – Headphones Cause Ear Infection
“Can headphones cause ear infections?” is a burning question. ” has been answered emphatically in the affirmative. Fortunately, you now know that you should disinfect your headphones with alcohol once a week, never share your headphones, and limit your headphone time. You’ll be fine after a round of ear drops!
We’re really excited to hear your feedback on the article. How savvy is your headphone and earbud hygiene? Does it involve weekly cleanups, or is that a bit too excessive for you? And, ultimately, are headphones bad for your ears? Let us know in the comments below!
FAQs About Headphones Causing Ear Infection
Can wearing headphones give you an ear infection?
Wearing headphones, particularly for long periods of time, can raise the temperature and humidity inside the ear canal, creating ideal conditions for bacteria to grow and making us more susceptible to infection.
Should I refrain from wearing headphones if I have an ear infection?
Patients suffering from an ear infection are advised to refrain from using earbuds for several weeks to allow the affected ear to heal. They might also need antibiotic or steroid ear drops.
What happens when you use headphones too much?
Excessive use of earphones can result in vertigo, a medical condition. Vertigo is a medical condition characterized by dizziness that can occur anywhere and at any time, limiting movement. Dizziness is caused by increased pressure in the ear canal caused by loud sounds.
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