Can I Wear Over-Ear Headphones With An Ear Infection?

by Alex.   Last Updated On June 1st, 2022.
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Ear infections can be a real pain. Most of them go away after a couple of days, but depending on your circumstances, some of them might even take several weeks. During this time, you should do your best to take care of your ears; this includes: taking your meds on time, avoiding any strenuous activities, and keeping your ears clean and dry as much as possible.

That said, you might be wondering if it’s okay to wear your over-ear headphones while waiting for your ears to heal? Maybe you want to enjoy some tunes in private, or you need to get some work done (that includes listening to audio via noise-canceling headphones)

Thankfully, you can wear over-ear headphones while recovering from an ear infection as long as you clean them out and don’t wear them for hours on end.

However, there’s more you need to know to use headphones safely. So in the following sections, I’ll go into more research and detail on related topics such as:

  • Can I Wear Over-Ear Headphones With an Ear Infection?
  • How to Avoid Ear Infections when I’m Wearing Over-Ear Headphones?
  • What Causes Ear Infections to Develop?

So put those headphones away, and let your ears breathe. We need to do some reading.

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Can I Wear Over-Ear Headphones With Ear Infection?

A study was carried out in Malaysia to determine if customer service representatives, who spend almost seven hours a day wearing headphones, have a higher chance of catching an ear infection or suffering from hearing loss.

From the results of this study, only a very small percentage (almost 5%) of employees were found to suffer from external ear canal infections and earwax buildup. Therefore, the use of over-ear headphones (under normal use-cases) is not the sole cause or aggravator of an ear canal infection.

So good news everyone, you can safely wear your over-ear headphones and listen to music without developing ear infections.

However, this study was more focused on collecting data regarding the employees’ aural health (ear health) and studying the correlation between frequent use of headphones and hearing loss. (Which also concluded that listening to audio at medium volume was not the main cause for hearing loss.)

As a result of this, the study didn’t prioritize the effect of bacteria and fungi on headphones. Instead, they referenced a much older study that compared the bacterial growth of earplugs used by pilots. This older study concluded that wearing earplugs, even without sanitizing them every day, doesn’t lead to bacterial infections or fungal growth. (For the majority of test subjects.)

So far, it seems like most of the research done on this subject has good news for us. Nevertheless, they are missing a few important considerations: what if you share your headphones with others? work out while wearing them, or keep wearing earbuds or headphones throughout the day; what happens then?

I can say with certainty that you are bound to catch an infection (or aggravate one) if you keep following the above practices. Also, I’m sure every ENT doctor (otolaryngologist) will agree with this.

Therefore, you need to do your best to follow proper aural hygiene and minimize headphones from hurting your ears. Luckily, the following section will give you some tips and tricks on how to achieve this.

surprised candid beautiful young woman removing one headphone from her ear for noise or loud music, grinding teeth, suffering from tinnitus or headache, real people

How to Avoid Ear Infections when I’m Wearing Over-Ear Headphones?

If you still want to wear over-ear headphones and maintain healthy ears free of infections, discomfort, and ear pain. I highly suggest considering the following practices.

Clean Your Headphones and Earbuds Regularly

The best way to prevent ear infections is to keep your wired, wireless headphones or hearing aids clean and free from dust and germs. You don’t have to clean them every time you take them off once a week is okay.

However, if you sweat a lot or work out while wearing over-ear headphones, I recommend wiping down the ear cushions using a damp cloth or alcohol wipe every time you’re finished working out. Don’t leave any sweat, dust, or grime as it will deteriorate the earpad liners and help breed bacteria.

Apart from wiping them down after you finish working out, you can follow these tips to make sure they are clean and free from dirt:

  • Use a cotton swab (Q-tips) to brush off dirt in hard-to-reach areas. (Such as the nooks where the earpad cushions go into the speaker grille and drivers.)
  • Use an old (and dry) toothbrush to gently brush off any wax build-up or visible dirt caught up in the speaker grilles.
  • Clean the entire outer body of the headphones (headband, outside of the cans) using cotton swabs and alcohol wipes.

Take Regular Breaks

A couple of the best advantages of over-ear headphones over other headphone audio equipment are the superior noise isolation capabilities and massive drivers. (Offering a wider and more accurate frequency response.) Over-ear headphones can create a tight seal around your ears while resting comfortably on your head.

However, creating this tight seal does come with its disadvantages, specifically regarding aural health issues. When you wear over-ear headphones for hours (such as continuously for almost 6-8 hours), your ears won’t get enough air (or even sunlight). Because of this, it can get hot and moist inside your ears, which are the perfect conditions for bacteria to grow on the ear. (Not the good kind, the ones that cause ear infections.)

Therefore, the best way to prevent an infection is by letting your ears have some room to breathe now and then by taking regular breaks. It can significantly reduce the chances of catching an infection in your external ear canal. On top of that, it prevents ear wax from clogging up inside your ears.

Depending on the type of work you do (streaming, video editing, audio mixing, etc.), you might have to keep wearing headphones for extended periods. Nonetheless, I highly suggest making it a habit to take a 10-minute off every couple of hours where you will take off your headphones and give your ears time to breathe.

Also, it’s best not to wear headphones while you’re sleeping or eating.

Don’t Share Earbuds or Headphones

I’m also guilty of doing this because whenever I hang out with friends, we share each other’s headphones and compare audio quality (Trying to find out who has the headphones with the better value for money). Luckily, me or my friends didn’t catch anything bad, and we kept our ears clean just like everybody else.

IIf you are sharing headphones (which I don’t recommend you do), you should always sanitize/clean them before putting them on. Also, you can use these disposable headphone covers for increased protection.

That said, you should always try not to share headphones or earbuds, especially when you’re suffering from an ear infection, as you’ll most likely catch (or activate) a bacterial or fungal infection on the skin of your outer ears.

A young woman cleans her ear, image taken in front of a white studio background

Clean Your Ears

Many headphone users neglect cleaning their ears because they believe that the ears can clean themselves using ear wax. Earwax can indeed keep your ears clean by collecting small foreign bodies (such as dust, debris, and bacteria) and falling out of your ears. However, they are not equipped to deal with headphones, so you need to meet them halfway here and help clean your ears.

Therefore, you should always do your best to wipe your ears whenever you’re taking a shower or freshening up after a workout. You can do this by taking a damp cloth and wiping down sweat, dust, and grime from the outer parts of your ears, including your earlobes, helix, and the back of your ears.

Occasionally, you can do a “deep clean” to get rid of impacted wax, by using an over-the-counter earwax softener. Here’s how:

  • Lie down on one side or tilt your head so that the affected ear is facing up
  • Uncap the bottle and hold it over the ear
  • Squeeze a couple of drops, into your ear canal
  • Stay in the same position (with your ear facing upwards) for around five minutes

If you suffer from diabetes, eardrum perforation (hole in your eardrum), or a compromised immune system, it’s best to consult a doctor before going through with this DIY approach.

Also, you should never try to clean your ears by yourself if you experience any of the following:

  • Earaches
  • Muffled hearing
  • A feeling of fullness inside the ear canal
  • Redness, itching, or swelling in the ears

Lower the Volume

Maybe, you want to feel that bass kick in a little harder, or maybe you’re having trouble answering your colleagues’ phone calls during your commute, during these situations, you might be tempted to pump up to the maximum volume setting, especially if your headphones are not great at handling bass or isolating background noise.

Unfortunately, listening to loud music continuously for hours on end is bad for your ears, and you’re at a much higher risk of having a hearing impairment if you continue on this path.

Studies carried out by the CDC have proved that prolonged use of headphones, with the volume set to maximum, can cause permanent damage to the cells inside the ear canals. Apart from that, it can perforate the eardrum, resulting in hearing loss.

Whenever you are listening to music, don’t go further than the 70dB limit, as prolonged exposure to sounds over this intensity, will lead to hearing impairment.

If you feel a ringing sensation, followed by a muffled sound, it’s an indication of noise-induced hearing loss (temporary tinnitus). So whenever that happens, you should immediately stop listening to loud music and let your ears rest. Fortunately, the ringing goes away in a couple of days.

What Causes Ear Infections to Develop?

Above, we talked so much about preventing ear infections but didn’t discuss what actually causes an infection or what follows. So in this section, let’s dig deeper into the causes and symptoms of ear infections and earaches.

Female laryngologist and patient in chair, otoscope. Ear examination in clinic, professional diagnostic, ent doctor. Medical specialist and woman in hospital

Bacteria in the Ear Canal

When you put on over-ear headphones (or other forms of hearing protection devices) that cover the entire ears, you involuntarily seal off your ears from the outside environment. It gets dark inside your ears, and without any airflow, it can start to get hot. Also, moisture builds up and creates the perfect environment for infectious bacteria to thrive.

As a result, it can cause bacterial or fungal infections inside your ears and even worsen an already existing condition. After which, you will have to take medication such as pain killers, ear drops, and decongestants until the infection clears up. The symptoms of an outer ear infection include redness, itching, swelling, discharge, and pain in these external areas.

As I mentioned in the prevention guide, you should try to take regular breaks in between sessions and let your ears breathe. Taking your headphones out (frequently) allows the ear canal to expel moisture and cool down to room temperature, reducing your chances of catching an infection.

Build up of Ear wax

Even though the chances of ear wax backing up inside the ears are relatively low for many people, it’s a significant impact on many headphone and earbud users, particularly those who don’t practice proper aural hygiene.

Ear wax gets secreted out of pores inside the ear canal. Their purpose is to repel insects (hence the bitter taste), trap foreign particles, and keep the ears clean. They are supposed to move through the ear canal, catch any germs, dust, or foreign particles, and fall out from your ears.

However, earwax doesn’t have a chance to fall out of your ears organically when there are headphones or earbuds, blocking the path; hence, they start to accumulate inside the ears. This is why you can see speaker grilles clogged up with ear wax on older earbuds.

In some cases, ear wax won’t latch onto the headphones or earbuds. Instead, it will sit inside your ears and start accumulating, resulting in earwax build-up (Impacted wax).

When left untreated, built-up ear wax can cause ear pain, hearing impairment, dizziness, and a ringing/itching sensation. In extreme cases, it can also lead to infections, causing perforations in the eardrum membranes, finally resulting in permanent hearing loss.

Complications within the Middle Ear

Up until this point, we were focusing on outer ear infections; other than that, there’s also the middle ear and inner ear we need to consider.

The middle ear sits right between the eardrum and the cochlea (of the inner ear). The purpose of the middle ear is to amplify sound waves (coming from the eardrum) and maintain the air pressure between both sides of the eardrum (via the eustachian tube).

The most common reason for middle ear infections is when mucus accumulates (most commonly due to a cold) behind the eardrum causing the eustachian tube to swell and block. Other than that, the Adenoid tissue (a small tissue that’s located at the back of the throat) can grow and also block the eustachian tube. When this tube is blocked, the middle ear has no way to expel waste; thus resulting in infections.

Symptoms of middle ear infections include earaches, fever, and hearing loss (by a very slight margin). However, a chronic middle ear infection can perforate the eardrum and cause pus discharge.

Complications within the Inner Ear

The inner ear contains the cochlea, and the responsibilities of the inner ear include converting sound waves into electrical signals and maintaining balance. (In audiophile terms, it’s like the DAC of the human body.)

An inner ear infection can occur due to several reasons; a few of these include:

  • A compromised immune system
  • Contracting the flu or common cold
  • Meningitis
  • Head injury
  • Chronic middle ear infection
  • Viral infections such as measles or herpes

There are two types of inner ear infections: Labyrinthitis and Vestibular neuritis. Although there are some common symptoms between these two (such as vertigo, nausea, and vomiting), Labyrinthitis can cause tinnitus, whereas, Vestibular neuritis can lead to hearing loss and problems with maintaining balance.

Conclusion

As you can see, the simple act of wearing over-ear headphones and listening to music (at normal volumes) does not aggravate your ear infections. However, if you don’t use clean earbuds or headphones and keep wearing them for extended periods (without taking regular breaks), you’re setting yourself up for another infection.

So wear headphones in moderation, and always listen to your body.