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Can Airpods cause Ear Infections?

May 14, 2024 • read

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Can Airpods cause Ear Infections?

Airpods and wearable technology have come a long way in protecting our ears by reducing noise exposure or preventing sensory overload. There is plenty of health advice and available tools to protect your hearing, but what about the impact of Airpods and earbuds themselves on your ear health? 

There is something here for you if you find yourself:

  • Wearing hearing aids 
  • Working in loud environments like construction or music, requiring the use of earplugs 
  • Connecting online for meetings or on calls most of the day using earpods or Airpods
  • Simply enjoying your favourite music or podcast with headphones

Read on to learn about the impact these small devices have on your ear health, how Airpods and earbuds can cause ear infections, and what you can do to protect your ears.  

Earbuds causing ear infections: what you need to know 

For most people, the ear is self-cleaning. Your body makes earwax (cerumen) to moisturize the inside of the ear and prevent dryness. The wax helps trap dust and dirt, absorbs dead skin cells, and prevents bacteria and other pathogens from getting to the inner parts of the ear. 

Earbuds like Airpods can contribute to ear infections by: 

  • Pushing the earwax inwards, causing a build-up of wax further into the canal and close to the eardrum, risking discomfort and infection. 
  • Irritating the skin barrier in your ear canal. Friction with inserting and removing earbuds frequently, or the earbud itself not fitting properly with your anatomy may irritate and risk breaking down the skin barrier, your body’s first defence. 
  • Unclean earbuds may harbour bacteria, viruses, or fungi, introducing them to a warm moist environment inside your ear. 

What is an ear infection? 

Ear infections are common, particularly among young people. However, there are different types of ear infections, each with different causes, symptoms, and treatment options. 

Inner ear infections (otitis interna) are rare and occur mostly in adults. They involve the hearing apparatus (cochlea) and the balance organ (vestibule) and can result in dizziness and nerve-related hearing loss. 

The middle ear infections (otitis media) is a common offender in children. It occurs when fluid cannot properly drain from behind the eardrum, allowing fluid and mucus to accumulate and creating the perfect environment for viruses and bacteria to grow. Upper airway congestion from upper respiratory infections can congest and block the tiny tube (eustachian tube) responsible for naturally draining the ear to the back of the nose. Daycare and preschool-aged children tend to get more colds in a year; being congested often combined with having smaller eustachian tubes is partly why this type of ear infection is more common in children. Smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke as it is an irritant that can irritate the back of the nose and eustachian tube lining, increasing the risk of this type of ear infection. 

Outer ear infections occur when there is damage to the skin barrier in the parts of the outer ear (the auricle and external auditory canal). This type of infection is often referred to as swimmer’s ear and can affect all ages. It most commonly occurs after frequent water exposure due to a moist environment in the ear. 

Anything that can trap moisture in the ear for prolonged periods of time may increase this risk, particularly if the device is not clean. So earbuds, over-the-ear headphones, and hearing aids alike can cause this type of ear infection. Additionally, skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis that may compromise the skin barrier can carry a greater risk of infection. Other causes of outer ear infections include: 

  • Allergies that cause inflammation to the skin inside the ear
  • Dermatitis that causes irritation to the skin inside or around the ear 
  • Over-cleaning of the ears
  • Mechanical trauma from pins, Q-tips, fingers, or other things that do not belong in the ear

Symptoms of outer ear infections 

Infections trigger an immune response, recruiting and sending cells like your white blood cells and antibodies to the site in an attempt to fight off the invading pathogen (virus, bacteria, or fungi). The ear canal is a very small space to begin with, even the smallest immune recruitment can cause swelling and result in feeling of fullness or discomfort that can feel out of proportion. 

Outer ear infection symptoms to look out for may include: 

  • Feeling itchy (pruritus) inside the ear
  • Ear pain ranging from mild to severe, often worsening with movement of the outer ear 
  • Reduced or muffled hearing 
  • Drainage of fluid or pus

How to prevent an ear infection from earbuds 

Reduce your risk of developing an ear infection by first treating any underlying skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis that may compromise your skin integrity. Next, avoid causing any trauma to the skin from itching, scratching, or introducing anything foreign into your ears for any reason. Practice good hand hygiene, washing with soap and water thoroughly to prevent the spread of infections. 

In addition to these staples, there are a few simple steps you can take to prevent getting an ear infection from using your earbuds: 

  1. Take breaks from prolonged use whenever possible.
  2. Change up the type of earphones (earbud vs. over-the-ear headphones) from time to time.
  3. Keep your earbuds or other ear devices clean. This will prevent introducing a potential pathogen (bacteria, virus, or fungi) to your ear. 
  4. Dry your ears well after water exposure. Towel dry your ears as best as you can, tilting your head in different directions or gently tugging on your ear with the ear facing downwards to allow any trapped water to drain out. If this fails, the CDC recommends using a blow dryer on the lowest heat and fan settings holding it several inches away from the ear to move air within the ear canal. 

When to seek help for ear concerns 

Inflammation and mild ear infections can resolve on their own over the course of a few days. However, it may be best to check in with your healthcare provider if:

  • Your hearing is impaired
  • You develop a fever (39°C) with ear pain
  • Your symptoms are worsening instead of getting better
  • You have pus, discharge, or fluid draining from the ear 

Earpods open the door for us to move more freely while staying connected. But without caution, they also have the potential to slow us down with an ear infection. If you find yourself wearing earbuds most of the day, remember to schedule headphone breaks to allow your ears to air out, and ensure the earbuds themselves are cleaned regularly. 

Reduce your risk of developing an ear infection from your earbuds and take control of your skin conditions with help from a Canadian-licensed primary care provider such as a family physician or nurse practitioner on Maple online today. If a hard-to-reach dermatologist is needed to help treat your skin condition, a consultation is often only 24 hours away. 

The information presented here is for educational purposes and not to replace the advice from your medical professional that is unique to you and your health history.

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