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How Those Grimy Earbuds Could Be Making You Sick

You probably know that if you listen to music too loudly or for too long with earbuds, you could permanently damage your hearing. But that’s not the only health risk that stems from earbuds. Nicholas Dewyer, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Banner - University Medicine North, shares some other problems you can develop when you use earbuds.

Dirty earbuds can cause infections

When was the last time you cleaned your earbuds? If it’s been a while, take a close look. You’ll probably see they’re full of earwax and dirt—a germy combination that can lead to infection. “Using dirty earbuds could cause pimples or otitis externa, a painful infection of the ear canal that’s also known as swimmer’s ear,” Dr. Dewyer said. If your skin gets irritated easily—for example, if you have eczema or psoriasis—you could be more prone to earbud-related infections.

The fix: To clean your earbuds, follow the manufacturer’s instructions—you don’t want to clean them incorrectly and damage them. If you don’t have the packaging that came with your earbuds, you can most often find instructions online.

Wearing earbuds a lot can cause impacted earwax

Even clean earbuds can cause impacted earwax. Earwax naturally cleans your ear as it moves from the inside out. But if you spend a lot of time wearing earbuds, the wax can’t naturally exit your ear, and it gets trapped inside. It can cause temporary hearing loss, earaches and infection.

If you use earbuds often but don’t develop impacted earwax, there’s no need to worry, Dr. Dewyer said. If you’re prone to impacted earwax, you might need to limit the time you spend listening with earbuds.

The fix: If your earwax gets impacted, don’t try to clear it out with a cotton swab. That just pushes the wax into your ear. Instead, use a cotton ball to drip water, saline solution or hydrogen peroxide into your ear. Keep your head tilted for about a minute to let the liquid drip down into the wax. Then, tilt your head the other way so the fluid and wax can run out. If that doesn’t work, your doctor can easily remove the earwax—it’s a common procedure.

Using earbuds can put your safety at risk

It can be dangerous to wear earbuds when you need to be aware of your surroundings. “Try to keep the volume low enough that you can still hear everyday sounds around you,” Dr. Dewyer said. If you’re riding a bike, jogging, or crossing busy streets and need to be aware of traffic, your safest bet is not to use earbuds.

The fix: If you want to listen to music and still keep your ears open to sounds around you, you can choose alternatives like bone conduction headphones.

The volume level of earbuds can be hard to judge

When you’re using earbuds in a noisy place like on an airplane or subway, you may find yourself turning the volume up so you can hear over the background noise. “That high volume can permanently damage your hearing, even if you can barely hear the music,” Dr. Dewyer said.

The fix: Pay attention to the volume indicator on your phone—not your sense of what you can hear—when you’re using your earbuds in a noisy environment. You might be better off with over-the-ear headphones in loud places. They block out the background noise so you can keep the volume low.

The bottom line

You don’t have to give up your favorite music, podcast or audiobook. If you take good care of your earbuds and your ears, you can safely listen to everything you love. If you could use some expert help in taking care of your ears and your hearing, reach out to Banner Health.

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