Conditions

Louise Greatrex, registered nurse in our Health at Hand team

Headphones and ear health

How extended use of headphones can affect hearing and ear health and tips to keep your ears healthy

20 November 2020

There’s no doubt that in today’s world, most of us are spending more and more time in a virtual space; whether that be for work, for entertainment or to catch up with family and friends. And for many of us, that means our use of headphones is also on the rise.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Listening to music can really enhance a workout: make it more enjoyable, keep you going for longer – and also coming back for more! In a work setting, research cited by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Network suggests that using headphones can help with concentration, stress, productivity and even the quality of work produced. And if they help you stay connected with loved ones who you can’t easily see face to face, then there are definitely mental health benefits to be had from using headphones.

But, as with many things, if you overuse them, or don’t use them well, they can cause problems with your hearing, your ear health and, as we’ll see, your safety

Here registered nurse, Louise Greatrex looks at some of the health issues that may arise from using headphones and how you can help reduce the risk of any harm.

Health issues associated with the mis-use of headphones

Ear wax build up: Frequent or prolonged use of headphones can inhibit our ears’ natural process of removing wax from the ear canal, which may lead to ear wax build up and blockage. This is particularly so for earphones – or ear buds – that sit inside the ear. While ear wax has both lubricating and antimicrobial properties, if we do not treat a build-up it may lead to several complications, including pain, irritation, hearing difficulties, dizziness or ringing in the ears (tinnitus).

Ear infections

Wearing headphones, especially for extended periods of time, can increase the temperature and humidity inside the ear canal, creating ideal conditions for bacteria to grow, making us more prone to infection. If we don’t clean, or change, our headphones regularly this can cause bacteria to be introduced into the ear canals where they can start to spread. Lack of air circulation that comes with the use of headphones, especially those that sit in the ear canal, also promotes a good breeding ground for bacteria, further increasing the risk of developing ear infections.

Hearing loss and impairment

Using headphones can lead to a number of problems that may affect our hearing, including conditions such as tinnitus (a ringing or buzzing noise in the ear not from an outside stimulus), noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) and hyperacusis (an increased sensitivity to normal environmental sounds). The likelihood of developing these conditions is greatly increased if the headphone volume is loud; anything exceeding 85-90 decibels (units that measure the intensity of a sound). By way of a guide, fully-throttled motorcycles and chainsaws generate approximately 100 decibels, which can damage hearing in as little as 30 minutes. Someone listening to music, with earbuds, at just 70% of the maximum volume is getting about 85 decibels. 

Pain and numbness

Studies have shown that those of us who use headphones or earbuds, especially frequently for extended periods of time, are at a greater risk of experiencing discomfort from pain or numbness in our ears. This can be due to ill-fitting ear pieces that sit inside the ear or from pressure on the outer ear from headphones designed to sit on or over the ears.

Effects of Bluetooth and wireless technology

Animal studies have shown that some health conditions may be affected by possible exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) emitted by these devices. However, more research will need to be conducted so that we can fully understand what risks, if any, wireless headphones may pose to human health.

Tips for looking after your ears

We’re not suggesting you stop using headphones completely, but there are some things we can all do to help reduce our risk of harm.

  • Cleaning - Ideally it would be sensible to try to change the sponge or rubber cover of your headphones at least once a month. If your headphones do not have a cover then you can sanitise them more regularly than this, using an antibacterial wipe, or just water and a sponge/cotton ball to clean the area; this is especially important if there is any visible dirt or debris in the earpiece.
  • Sharing - It’s important to never share your headphones with others as it’s an easy way to spread bacteria and introduce possible infection into your ears. If someone else does use your headphones it would be sensible to thoroughly clean them before you use them again.
  • Volume - The NHS promote the 60:60 rule to reduce the risk of short term or permanent effects on your hearing: listen to headphones at no more than 60% of the max volume for no longer than 60 minutes at any one time. If you listen to your music at a lower volume this should mean that it is safer to extend the time period, and while it’s never advisable to have headphone volume extremely loud, if you do for a short period then give your ears a longer break afterwards to recover.
  • Background noise - Never turn up the volume to drown out background noise. If you find that background noise is a problem, try noise-cancelling headphones instead, so you can continue to listen at a safe volume, but be aware of the risks to your personal safety and that of others around you if you wear them when you’re out and about.
  • Taking regular breaks - it’s important to take regular breaks from headphone use to reduce any risk of permanent damage to our hearing and get some fresh air to our ears, to help prevent earwax build up and infection.

Summary

For many of us the use of headphones has become a part of everyday life, connecting us to the soundtracks we love, books, movies, podcasts and family and friends, as well as keeping us in contact with work and colleagues, as more and more of us are working from home. Follow our tips and you can continue to use them safely, prevent hearing loss and ensure your ears stay healthy.

Safety note: Always use headphones safely when you’re out and about to prevent accidents. 

References

[1] HSE Network (2020) The use of headphones and how it impacts on health and safety.

[ii] Power of positivity Doctors Warn About What Happens to Your Ears When You Wear Headphones Too Long.

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