Common tech accessory likely to blame for uptick in infections, doctors say

ByDiane Wilson and Tonya Simpson WTVD logo
Friday, November 8, 2019
Headphone germs can cause you problems
Headphone germs can cause you problems

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Your favorite workout accessory could be putting your health at risk. Headphones collect sweat, dirt and bacteria that can be transferred to your ears and create the perfect storm for dangerous infections.

Wireless headphones and earbuds are becoming more and more popular thanks to the convenience and ease. People we talked to at Millennium Sports Club in Durham said they love having wireless and hands-free options for both inside and outside of the gym, but they don't give much thought to keeping their headphones clean.

"I put them on every day. I've never had them fall out no matter what I did," Douglas Lawrence said. "I don't clean them other than wiping them off with a rag or something."

SEE ALSO: How to properly clean your earbuds

Not keeping your headphones and your ears clean could lead to an ear infection according to Andriana Cellini, a physician assistant with FastMed Urgent Care.

"That's what we're seeing a lot of adults coming in with," Cellini said. She said there has been an increase in patients coming in with symptoms of outer ear infections and one thing many of those patients have in common: using headphones that go inside their ears.

"They tend to lock in moisture in the ear canal. They can also cause a little scrape on the actual inner lining of that ear canal. That scraping and that moisture pretty much serves as a home for all bacteria to grow," Cellini said.

To find out what types of bacteria can live on earbuds ABC11 turned to experts at North Carolina State University.

Microbiologist Dr. Michael Taveirne swabbed several different headphones and sent the cultures in for testing. Tests showed different types of bacteria present on all of the headphones.

"Finding bacteria on earbuds or your skin is perfectly normal," Taveirne said. Bacteria that live on skin are vital to human health and most are not harmful, but some can cause infection if there is a break in the skin.

The bacteria found on the headphones included staphylococcus and p seudomonas, two types that can cause infection under the right circumstances.

"They are common to human skin so if we find those that doesn't automatically say that you're going to get an ear infection. It just means that they're present and maybe if you get an abrasion or a cut it could potentially lead to infection," Taveirne said.

If you do get an ear infection, Cellini said most can be treated easily but some can lead to serious issues.

"Hearing loss is becoming common as an actual symptom as well. Majority of the time you will start to see either some pus coming out of the ear and then if the ear drum actually ruptures you'll have blood there as well," she said.

Troubleshooter Takeaway

  • The best advice to reduce your risk of infection, keep your earbuds clean especially if they're the kind that go inside your ear and if you ever share them.
  • You should also store them inside a case when you're not using them instead of tossing them in a gym bag or other places that may not be clean.