Wireless earphone sales are growing rapidly, with Apple alone selling an estimated 100 million sets of AirPods in 2020. Being untethered from our phone or device means that we can wear the earphones for a long time.
As a result, you may notice that your ears feel more sticky or waxy. Is this common? And what happens to our ears when we put on earphones?
Although wireless earphones are fairly new to the market, there has been a large amount of research investigating long-term use of hearing aids, which in many cases have a similar mechanism. From this research, it appears that long-term use of in-ear devices can cause earwax problems.
Read more: Are your kids using headphones more during the pandemic? Here’s How To Protect Their Ears
What does earwax do?
The production of earwax (also called cerumen) is a normal process in humans and many other mammals. There should always be a thin layer of wax near the opening of the ear canal.
This wax is a waterproof and protective secretion. It acts to moisten the skin of the outer ear canal and acts as a protective mechanism to prevent infection, providing a barrier to insects, bacteria and water. Wet earwax is brown and sticky, while the dry type is more white in color.
In fact, earwax is such a big blocker, in the 1800s there were reports of it being used as an effective balm for chapped lips!
Earwax is a naturally occurring substance that is produced in the outer part of the ear canal. It is created by secretions from oil glands and sweat glands released by hair follicles, which then trap dust, bacteria, fungus, hair and dead skin cells to form wax.
The outer ear canal can be thought of as an escalator system, in which the wax always moves outward, leaving the ear unfilled with dead skin cells.
This migration of earwax is also aided by natural jaw movements. Once the earwax reaches the end of the ear, it drains out easily.
Read more: Curious Kids: How does the crust form?
How earphones can affect this system
The ear is self-cleaning and performs its function best without any blockage. However, anything that stops the normal progression of outgoing earwax can cause problems.
Normal use of in-ear devices often causes no problems. But prolonged use of the earphones, such as if you leave them on all day, can lead to:
- compress earwax, making it less fluid and harder for the body to expel naturally
- Compress earwax to the extent that the body induces inflammation. This results in white blood cells migrating to the area, increasing the number of cells in the blockage.
- Affect air flow and prevent wet earwax from drying out. When earwax retains its stickiness for a long period of time, it encourages build-up
- traps sweat and moisture in the ears, making them more prone to bacterial and fungal infections
- Inhibits the natural removal of earwax, which stimulates the secretory glands and increases the production of earwax
- If the pads of the earbuds are not cleaned properly, or are contaminated with bacteria or infectious agents, reduce full ear hygiene
- If the volume is set too high it will damage your hearing.
If build-up accumulates, excessive earwax can cause hearing problems, along with other symptoms such as pain, dizziness, tinnitus, itching and vertigo.
If you need to listen for longer periods of time, using over-ear headphones can be of little help. These provide a small amount of extra airflow compared to in-ear earphones and earbuds. However, this is not as good as leaving the ears open to outside air, and earwax accumulation can still occur.
Since they sit outside the ear canal, over-ear headphones also cause any earwax condensation, or introduce bacteria or pathogens, into the ear canal.
Read more: Health Check: Is it harmful to sleep regularly with earplugs on?
nothing smaller than your elbow
In most cases, the best way to control earwax is to leave it alone. Frequent use of cotton buds is not recommended, as this can cause earwax to seep back into the ear canal. There has long been advice not to put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear – in other words, don’t put anything in there!
Some traditional methods, such as olive oil drops or ear candles, can also have adverse effects and are not helpful.
If you have earwax or related hearing concerns, your family doctor will have a range of treatment options to help, and may also direct you to the right healthcare if long-term management is needed.
Initially, they will look into your ear with a special instrument (otoscope) and see the extent of any blockage or dysfunction.
Meanwhile, the ear has an amazing self-cleaning process, and we should do our best to let it happen naturally. Earphones are fine in most cases, but it can still be helpful to be aware of how long you spend wearing them. Lastly, be sure to always keep the volume at safe levels.