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Better earbud habits can prevent needing medical attention

Earbud Overuse
Posted at 9:38 AM, Mar 03, 2022

CHICAGO — We’ve all done it— popped in some earbuds for a video conference call or just to play some music and shut out distractions. But while earphone use has gotten more ubiquitous and for longer periods of time during the pandemic, if you’re not careful, you could find yourself at the doctor’s office.

As a marketing professional Julia Addis is on the phone talking to people all day long.

“I live in an apartment downtown with two roommates and all three of us are working from the same place, so I had to resort to using headphones,” said Addis.

During the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, she says she would use her earbuds two to eight hours a day.

“They’re in basically for meetings all, all day long,” she said.

But wearing earbuds for hours on end can reduce oxygen flow inside the ear canal. Experts warn obstructions can cause wax to build up and mix with moisture, and that can lead to irritation and infection.

“When you use these devices for such a long time, it really does increase the chance of having infections for those variety of reasons,” said Dr. Elias Michaelides, an ENT and associate professor specializing in hearing at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Dr. Michaelides points out that earbud surfaces are also prime environments for dirt and germs to accumulate.

“If you're wearing a device for that many hours and you’re using it many times, it could lead to bacteria or wax buildup on the device, which then could lead to increased chance of infection,” said Dr. Michaelides.

For Julia Addis, the earbud overuse turned into severe pain and multiple trips to the E.R.

“It got so bad at the very beginning, like in deep quarantine, that I had to go to the emergency room twice because I literally thought my ear canal was going to explode. It was horrible,” she said.

There are some simple things you can do if you find you’re plugging in more often these days to help reduce the risk of developing painful ear infections:

  • Take a break every hour for at least five minutes to let your ears breathe.
  • Clean your earbuds at the end of each day with a little isopropyl alcohol wipe.
  • Make sure that the device fits well.
  • Use caution not to pull the earbuds out too quickly.

“When you have a very tight fit, it can create a little vacuum in the ear, especially when you pull the devices out,” said Dr. Michaelides. “So, you have to be careful not to injure the very delicate eardrum.”

For Julia Addis, listening more to her body, rather than her earbuds, has made all the difference.

“Be really proactive, so the second that you feel something is off or something starts to hurt, don't wait until the last minute to make an appointment,” said Addis.

Because a little less listening can go a long way.