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Are earbuds damaging my hearing?

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Everywhere you look, people have their earbuds in – chatting on the phone, listening to music, working from an internet cafe with others around. The hours you’re wearing your air pods can stack up, and that could be causing damage by preventing essential airflow around the ear canals.

Ear wax: no one really wants to talk about it, but it’s a major part of the amazing self-cleaning function of our ears. But it can build up and dampen your hearing. Doctors are used to seeing this in the older generation, but recently there’s been a spate of those in their teens and 20s presenting with completely blocked ears. It seems that earbuds are to blame.

Why do we have wax?

The hole you see in the middle of your ear is the beginning of the tube called the ear canal. This channels sound waves to the tympanic membrane or ear drum. This is a thin layer, acting exactly like a drum, to bounce sound waves onto the tiny ear bones called ossicles, and - in a long-winding path that involves the middle ear - your brain eventually interprets this into something meaningful.

The ear canal also performs the important function of protecting the eardrum from external and internal debris – dust, dirt, pollen, bacteria, fungi, sweat, oil, and dead skin. Tiny hairs waft debris and danger out, with the help of wax to capture it all and see it on its way. It’s normal and healthy to have a bit of wax, and doctors like to see this looking like a soft, yellow paste. You can remove it when it appears at the entrance with your finger or a tissue.

How can I prevent wax build-up?

Anything that blocks this flushing system will inevitably cause wax build-up. We’re looking at you, earbuds, but also hearing aids, and noise-reducing earplugs. All of these devices don’t encourage more wax to be produced, they just prevent wax from being released and the ear from keeping itself clean and healthy.

So you need to give yourself time away from the earbuds. It’s not clear where the balance is, but ear specialists also think your hearing is at risk with prolonged headphone use. They recommend the 60/60 rule – 60 minutes of in-ear headphones, with the volume of your smartphone set at 60%.

If you have the volume higher, you need to reduce the amount of time, to protect the delicate hearing system from long-term damage. Smartphones often have a built-in alert to warn you if you’ve reached the maximum recommended volume setting.

If you do notice a build-up, you can buy a wax softener such as olive oil drops or sodium bicarbonate to encourage the wax out.

How can I prevent ear infections?

The inside of an ear provides a warm, moist place, which is the ideal breeding ground for bacteria, viruses, and fungi. With extended earbud use, you lose the mechanism to flush out germs, making the environment even more damp and warm; and a bit smelly. Just one more reason to give yourself time off the air pods and listen to that fresh air whistle around your ears.

Also, it's a good idea to regularly clean your earbuds and their case using some antiseptic wipes and allow them to air-dry.

When should I see my doctor?

Wax that becomes hard, dark brown and dry, or crusty is likely to be impacted and can partially or completely block the eardrum. This can cause pain, itching and hearing loss, and even a loss of balance. Cotton buds help push the wax further down the canal and impact it into a solid lump – we don’t recommend them.

If you experience any of these symptoms in one ear or both, make an appointment so your doctor can look into your ears.

They may suggest an ear wax softener. If this doesn’t do the job, they may refer you to their practice nurse for ear irrigation or micro suction to clear the wax out. Ensure you use the softeners for two weeks or more before the appointment to give it the best chance of success.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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