Working from home means that all of our work conversations require a certain degree of technology. A "meeting" is now you and your colleagues on a Zoom call. And depending on your home office set up, that might mean you're spending all day wearing earbuds or headphones. Even if there's not a constant sound coming out of them, earbuds and headphones block airflow to your ears, which Sujana Chandrasekhar, MD, an otolaryngology partner at ENT&Allergy Associates, says is not great for your ear health.
"Our ear canals are open to air, and they're open to air for a reason," says Dr. Chandrasekhar. Your ear canal is lined by a type of skin that actually produces ear wax and then transports it in and out to carry with it any dirt particles that may have flown in from the atmosphere. Bblocking your ear canals for long periods of time makes them very dark and moist. "It's just a fertile breeding ground for bacteria and fungi," she says. "Where do you find mushrooms? You find them under other plants in a dark moist atmosphere." Dr. Chandrasekhar adds that headphones offer a bit more airflow than earbuds, but still not enough that it's okay to wear them all day.
Do headphones increase ear wax? If you're wearing them all day, Jason Abramowitz, MD, also an otolaryngology partner at ENT&Allergy Associates, explains that you may notice build-up.
"The earbuds themselves do not typically lead to more wax production. Instead, they affect the airflow in the ear canal which can lead to wax buildup," says Dr. Abramowitz. "The greater the seal of the earbud, the less the ear canal aerates. This can lead to wax accumulation."
Avoid the urge to try to dig out that wax with a cotton swab, cautions Dr. Chandrasekhar, as those can push wax deeper into the ear canal. "You can take your index finger, if you don't have long nails, and just kind of swirl it inside just the opening of the ear canal and whatever comes out on your finger is all that needs to come out," she says.
Dr. Abramowitz adds that wearing tight earbuds for extended periods can potentially cause pain and damage to your jaw joint. "Our jaws sit just next to the ear canal," he says. "The pain from the jaw can sometimes feel like a sharp pain in your ear. If you do experience pain in your ears after wearing them for a long period, its best to have your ears checked." He says to give your ears a rest from your headphones and earbuds for a few minutes each hour. "This lets the muscles in the ear and jaw rest and also helps bring air to the ear canal and help equalize the moisture in your ear canal to the outside," he says.
If you're also listening to music, the best thing you can do is to use a speaker instead of earbuds or headphones. "It's actually safer for you because it's not just pouring the music into your ear canal there's some deflection by the humidity in the atmosphere, by the softness of your curtains or your carpet or whatever that's absorbing the extra sound," says Dr. Chandrasekhar. But, if you're working in a space with others, she says to keep the volume low and to take a half-hour to an hour break after every one and a half-hour of listening to music.
Lastly, be sure to keep your device clean. Dr. Chandrasekhar says to use an alcohol wipe or another cleansing wipe that's safe to use on your earbuds and headphones, and clean it once a day.
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