Healthy Body

Sharing AirPods Is Basically the Same As Sharing a Toothbrush… If Sharing a Toothbrush Could Give You an Ear Infection

Mary Grace Garis

Photo: Getty Images/Westend61
While watching the recently premiered Netflix flick Moxie, I spotted a tried-and-true rom-com trope: the sharing of the headphones to enjoy listening to a song with a crush. And while the scene may be a common one to mark the beginning stages of innocent love, viewing it this time—after spending more than a year at a social distance from others, and now hyper-aware of germ transmission—led me to wonder about the cleanliness factor of the activity. Namely, can sharing earbuds cause ear infections? And if so, should I remove this once-cute move from my flirtation playlist (once it's safe again to partake, that is)?

Well, according to Sujana Chandrasekhar, MD, an otolaryngology partner at ENT and Allergy Associates, most of the time it’s okay, so long as you clean the earbud with alcohol before and after using it. If you don't? Well, you run the risk of transmitting bacteria and potentially developing infections, not dissimilar from what can happen if you share a toothbrush. "If one of you has an ear canal infection…that infection can be spread from person to person," she says. "Also, if you’re rough or deep with the insertion of the pod, you can cause a superficial scratch of the ear canal skin, which predisposes it to infection."

If you cringed upon reading that last bit, you're in good company (with me). The thought of using a Q-tip (even the correct way) grosses me out, so as you can imagine, the visual of shoving headphones into an ear and subsequently breeding an ear infection gives me the shivers. And that's really just the tip of the gross-out iceberg regarding shared headphones.

"The ear canal skin, unlike the rest of our skin, is found in a dark, warm place, and that is fertile breeding ground for both bacteria and fungus." —Sujana Chandrasekhar, MD,

"Ear canal infections, also called ‘otitis externa,’ are skin infections, so transferring bacteria, fungi, or ear wax with those microbial elements in it via ear pod will ‘transplant’ that infection to the new ear canal," says Dr. Chandraskhar. "The ear canal skin, unlike the rest of our skin, is found in a dark, warm place and that is fertile breeding ground for both bacteria and fungus."

So if your have that aforementioned scratch or two, that makes the infection transfer way easier and more likely. And chances are, you won't even notice if you've been scratched. Still, even if you've inspected for cuts, and even if you have velvety smooth ears that are perfectly healthy, there's the ick factor that can come from merging ear wax with someone else.

"Swapping ear wax is just grody to think about in general, but the other person’s flaky ear wax has no business mingling with your soft, sticky ear wax, and vice versa," says Dr. Chandraskhar. "Also, if the wax is on the bud and you don’t clean it before putting it in your ear, you’re putting foreign wax deep into your own ear canal. That’s just yuck."

Bottom line: Try to not share your pods or plugs. While the shared wax may not pack a serious risk to your health, it at worst opens you up to infection and is at best relatively gross. And if you really think that sharing in listening to that song by the Shins will make the difference in captivating your crush? "Clean the ear piece before handing it over, and clean it again before putting it back in your ear," Dr. Chandraskhar.

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