Few things puncture the soul quite like heading out on the work commute only to discover down the train line that you’ve left your earphones at home. It’s torturous. Suddenly, what could have been a 40 minute commute listening to the latest true crime podcast or a carefully curated playlist is a dose of the Real World. There’s the guy yelling down the phone line as he proceeds to voice an entire conversation in public, the woman crunching her granola on your left, and those school kids whose terminology serves only to reinforce that yes, you’re old. Forgetting your earphones is torture and for most, having them plugged into our ears at the office or at home is what gets through the day.
But if you’ve ever plugged in for some hours of podcast- or music-listening while blocking out all external noise, you might have noticed your ears feeling a little more sticky or waxy. The research on wireless earphones might not be particularly extensive, but there are correlations between the tech accessory and similar mechanisms, namely that of hearing aids. Researchers were able to use studies on the latter to suggest that prolonged use of in-ear devices like wireless earphones can cause problems with earwax.
It goes without saying that we all have earwax. Production of earwax occurs in humans and many other mammals and is normal as it serves as a kind of protective secretion. Produced in the external portion of the earl canal, it’s created by the secretions of oil glands and sweat glands released by hair follicles, which then traps dust, bacteria, fungi, hairs and dead skin cells to form the wax. By moistening the skin of the external ear canal, it prevents infection and provides a barrier for insects, bacteria and water.
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If earwax is normal and a good thing though, what is the concern presented by wireless earphones? As it turns out, anything that blocks the normal progression of earwax moving outside can cause issues. Researchers believe normal use of in-ear devices don’t often cause a problem, but prolonged earphone use could have a significant impact. Issues include compressing the earwax and making it less fluid and harder for the body to naturally expel; impacting air flow and stopping wet earwax from drying out; trapping sweat and moisture in the ears before then making them more prone to bacterial and fungal infections; and creating a barrier to the earwax’s natural expulsion, which ends up stimulating the secretory glands and increasing earwax production. In the worst case scenarios where the build-up accumulates, excessive earwax can cause hearing problems and other symptoms like pain, dizziness, tinnitus and vertigo.
So, what’s the solution then? What about those long days in the office when you simply need to drown out the incessant breathing and chewing sounds of co-workers? Or when international travel returns and there’s a toddler on board screaming bloody murder, how do we drone out the noise for a long-haul flight then? Researchers suggest switching to over-ear headphones, which are less likely to cause any earwax compaction, or introduce bacteria or pathogens to the ear canal. Essentially, you need to let your ears breathe fellas.