Everywhere you look, people have their earbuds in – chatting on the phone, listening to music, working from a 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. As doctors, we 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.
The hole you see in the middle of your ear is the beginning of tube called the ear canal. This channels sounds waves to the tympanic membrane, or ear drum. This is a thin layer, acting exactly like a drum, to bounce sound waves on to the tiny ear bones called ossicles, and - in a long-winded path that involves the middle ear - your brain eventually interprets this into something meaningful.
The ear canal also performs an important function of protecting the eardrum from outside 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 it’s way. It’s normal and healthy to have a bit of wax, and us doctors like to see this looking like a soft, yellow paste. You can just remove it when it appears at the entrance with your finger or a flannel.
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 being released and the ear keeping itself clean and healthy.
So you need to give yourself time away from the earbuds. It’s not clear where the balance sits, 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 an inbuilt alert to warn you if you’ve reached the maximum recommended headphone usage.
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.
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 and you make 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.
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 have a look in your ears.
They may suggest an ear wax softener. If this doesn’t do the job, they may refer you to their practice nurse or a local service for ear irrigation or microsuction, to clear the wax out in one go. Make sure you use the softeners for two weeks or more before the appointment, to give it the best chance of success.
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