Woman wondering if her headphones can cause ear infections

Can Headphones Cause Ear Infections?

A friend of mine recently got an ear infection, it wasn’t the worst, but as we were both constantly using our headphones, it popped up in conversation if the cause could be her headphones. Earphones seem a likely culprit, but can headphones cause ear infections?

Yes, headphones can increase the temperature of the ear canal and, when worn for extended periods of time, can lock in humidity. This creates the ideal environment for both introducing bacteria to the ear canal as well as promoting their growth.

While this is theoretically true, a study on ear infection and hearing loss amongst headphone users found that prolonged use of headphones by call center attendants predisposes them to infection of the external ear canal. It did, however, make the symptoms worse in individuals who already had chronic middle ear infections.

The study, however, did have some flaws as the employees weren’t screened when they were first appointed, so there is no way of knowing if the employees with chronic ear infections perhaps got them while on duty.

The conclusion of that study was that more research was needed and that the best would be to incorporate increased hygiene measures such as regular cleaning of the headphone to prevent a build-up of bacteria or fungus that can cause external canal infections as well as discouraging the sharing of headphones.

Why you should clean your headphones

There are quite a few reasons, and if you’re sharing headphones with other people, the logic is quite clear. You don’t know where their ears have been (jokes aside – they might have an ear infection that they could be spreading).

And even if you don’t share your headphones, putting them done on surfaces, picking them up by the cups with dirty hands, and even just leaving them somewhere where someone can cough or sneeze on them accidentally, could 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 to clean your headphones? You need to either use a damp soapy cloth (be careful of damaging the electronics with too much moisture – wipe it dry afterward) or some isopropyl alcohol.

To get rid of any bacteria in the sponges, you’ll have to take them off and wash them properly. Leave them in the sun to dry afterward. 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, according to a 2019 study. You can replace the earpads on your headphones 2 -3 times per year if you are susceptible to infections.

Headphones carry dirt and bacteria

Depending on the type of headphones you have, they could be more likely to pick up and carry dirt and bacteria. On-ear headphones sit right on your ear canal, making the transmission easier; they are also often uncovered, meaning the sponge can absorb more dirt and pathogens.

Ideally, you want something that’s easy to clean and doesn’t come into close contact with your ear canal. Over-ear headphones are usually covered with strong material, leather and pleather being the easiest to clean, and the cups are replaceable.

Earbuds are the worst as they go straight into the ear. Do yourself a favor, just quickly take out your earphones and look inside the silicone tips. Prepare yourself, it ain’t gonna be pretty. Luckily, they’re quite simple to clean.

When you take them out of your ears, you usually just pop them in your bag, trouser pockets, or whatever you’ve got with you, right?  And then put them back in our ears later without even thinking about it. You are actually introducing a whole new biome to your sensitive ear ecosystem. Don’t do that, clean them regularly, and use a dedicated protective casing to store them when you’re not using them.

Cleaning them is simple, and you’d be surprised at the gunk that comes out. For easy to follow steps, go to the end of the article.

Headphones and earphones can also increase earwax build-up

Your ears are designed to clean themselves, so by putting something over or in them, you could be obstructing the natural purge. This is definitely made worse by earphones, as opposed to headphones, as they sit inside the ear canal, blocking them completely.

As the ear wax increases, it solidifies and creates impacted ear wax, which can affect your hearing. If you’re a fan of Dr. Pimple Popper, I implore you to go have your ears cleaned by a professional.

If you use earphones, you could also be removing necessary earwax from the outer edges of your ear canal, leaving them exposed to bacteria and ultimately leading to itchy, dry ears. While a build-up of earwax can be bad (according to a 2015 study), ear wax has a very important function in the ears. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) ear wax protects your inner ear canal skin, cleans and lubricates, and protects your ears against bacteria, fungi, and water.

By making sure your headphones and earbuds are always clean, and by rather using headphones than earphones, you can keep your ear wax situation healthy, which brings me to my next point.

Clean your ears

Cleaning your ears is a great idea, as it prevents the build-up of wax and removes bacteria. However, cleaning your ears in the wrong way can actually make things worse.

We all love cotton swabs- I’ll be the first to say that swirling them around in my ears is one of my secret pleasures in life (yeah, I said it). But, by using a cotton swab incorrectly, you could actually compact the wax even further, pushing it deeper into the ear canal and closer to your eardrum.

Cotton swabs should ONLY be used to clean the outside of your ears and the very first bit of the canal; I know it’s tempting to go deeper, but trust me, it ain’t a good idea.

So, how should you remove earwax if you believe it’s causing your hearing loss. You could try some over-the-counter ear wax removal kits, they’re not bad, but you’d risk removing too much ear wax or even damaging your eardrum.

The best method to clean your ears? Either let them self regulate in peace, or if there is some serious compacted wax, go see a licensed physician as soon as possible.

Can Sharing Headphones or Earphones Trigger Ear Infections

Many bacterial and viral infections are contagious, and it’s often through shared surfaces and objects that we can get these infections.

If you’re sharing your headset with someone that has an infection, the chance of you getting that infection is increased tenfold.

Even just quickly letting someone listen to a song you love can be enough to pick up the virus or bacteria on your headset. The best is to unplug your headphones and listen to the music through the device. Even sharing with close friends and family can be a bad idea, while no one wants to pass on an infection, it’s not something we always think about.

A study done by the Manipal Centre for Infectious Diseases found that frequent and constant use of earphones and other similar devices increased the bacterial growth in the ear.  When comparing bacterial growth on the external ear in association with earphones, they found that frequent use of earphones resulted in a significant increase in the number of bacterial growths as well as heavy growth, compared to those who used earphones less.

Sharing earphones, headphones, airline headsets, and even a stethoscope earpiece at the doctor was also found to spread pathogens and cause-related issues such as otitis externa.

As a general rule, I avoid sharing my headphones or earphone. If you really have to share them, just make sure you disinfect them before they go back onto or into your ears.

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.

●       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.

●       Use a soft, dry, lint-free cloth to clean off excess wax and dirt

A good cloth will effectively remove any wax or dirt, eliminating the need for soapy water.

●       If your headphones have been exposed to anything that might cause stains or damage, such as hairspray, perfume, sunscreen, etc., take the following steps:

  1. Use a damp, lint-free cloth to wipe off the substance, and immediately dry them again with a new cloth.
  2. Don’t use an excessively wet cloth; this can allow water or moisture into the electronics.
  3. Don’t plug them in again for at least 10 minutes; if any moisture got into the speakers, this would give it time to dry, avoiding any damage.

●       If the speaker mesh is dirty, use a dry swab to loosen the dirt and clean it.

●       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 bit of silicone that you put over the hard earphone shell. They are removable and quite easy to clean. Follow these steps to get them fresh again:

  1. Removable tips are easy to clean; simply pop them off and give them a good clean with some lukewarm water. They are made from silicone, so no harm will come from a good wash.
  2. Once you’re done cleaning them, leave them in the sun to dry for an hour or so.
  3. Before you try to put them back onto your earphones, make sure they are completely dry. You can use a soft cotton swab to get in between the folds.
  4. Maneuver the tips back onto your earphones and enjoy… squeaky clean and germ-free.

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:

  1. If your headphone ear pads are removable, pop them off.
  2. Get a bowl of soapy water ready – just half a spoon of soap in about 250ml of lukewarm water.
  3. Soak your earphone pad sponges for around 15 minutes – cushion side down and the leather (or velour, pleather, whatever you’ve got) facing up. If you can avoid that bit of soaking, it’s better.
  4. After the 15 minutes are up, gently push the cushion with your fingers, expelling the water, and then soaking it up again.
  5. Take a bit of the water on a cloth and clean the material bit.
  6. Remove the dirty water and fill the bowl with lukewarm clean water.
  7. Repeat step 4 with the clean water.
  8. Take a dry cloth and wrap the ear pads in them, pressing them against a hard surface to remove any excess water.
  9. 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 very possible to get an ear infection and spread them via headphones, these practical steps will help you avoid it in the future. Even if you aren’t sharing headphones, cleaning them regularly, and making sure your own ears are clean will stop any recurring infections you could be giving yourself.

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