One of the new normal activities upon the onset of the pandemic is the emergence of electronic activities, many of them necessitating use of earphones. Andrew Masinde talked to some health experts about how to rightly use earphones or headphones to avoid the associated risks.
Business, education, religion and, practically, any interaction that required many people, have moved to the Internet. And that means they require the use of earphones or headphones.
Thus, henceforth, earphones are becoming a daily, must-have item, since many people use them for official work, such as conducting online meetings.
But how safe are the people using earphones and headsets? Are there any dangers associated with excessive use of earphones?
Dr Edison Babigamba, an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) surgeon and lecturer at Makerere University College of Health Sciences, says the overuse of earphones can cause hearing impairment and many other health hazards.
"Earphones can produce loud levels of sound. Using them close to the ear for long periods of time is dangerous," he says.
While you might not be a distraction to those around you, you certainly are harming yourself unknowingly.
"Earphones produce sound waves that cause the eardrum to vibrate. This vibration spreads to the inner ear via the small bones and reaches the cochlear, which is a chamber in the inner ear, filled with a fluid and consists of thousands of small hairs," he explains.
According to Babigamba, when this vibration reaches the cochlear, the fluid vibrates, making the hairs move. The louder the sound, the stronger the vibrations and the more the hairs move the more likely for them to lose their sensitivity to vibration.
"Sometimes the loud sound also results in the cells bending or folding over, which leads to the sensation of temporary hearing loss. Sometimes, when they recover, they mostly cannot function normally, which may cause permanent hearing loss or deafness," he adds.
Also, the damage of the hair cells may prevent the brain from receiving the nerve signals properly. Therefore, abnormal nerve signals will be produced to compensate for the missing input by the cochlear hair cells. The result of this electrical noise is known as tinnitus, a condition
which is a perception of a ringing, buzzing or roaring noise in the ear or head.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates, around one billion young people across the globe could be at the risk of hearing loss because of the unsafe listening habits they practice through earphones.
Ricky Byaruhanga, an ENT specialist at the International Hospital, Kampala, says the overuse of ill-fitting headsets can also result into pain, which may later be felt in the inner ear.
"This causes soreness in the vicinity of the ear, from the jaws to the top of the head. It also causes barotrauma earaches, a condition that causes a person to feel pain or discomfort in the middle part of their ear, due to pressure changes in the surrounding air or water," he explains.
He added that the barotrauma earaches occur when one uses headphones with powerful speakers, which put more air pressure on the eardrum.
Byaruhanga adds that wearing in-ear headphones may also block wax from coming out of the ears, hence leading to a buildup of earwax and, in the long run, leading to health complications.
"Most will find earwax on the earphones after removing them from the ears.
"However, many never bother to clean off the wax. This, in the long run, exposes them to ear infections or conductive hearing loss," he says.
RISK OF INFECTION
He further explains that pushing earphones into the ear can push wax back into the ear canal, which prevents wax from naturally draining itself from the ear.
Byaruhanga adds that the dirt and bacteria that these headphones often carry can also cause an infection on their own and, earwax build up, can trap dirt in the ear and block the canal completely.
"Signs of earwax blockage include a feeling of fullness in the ears, feeling dizzy or lightheaded or ringing in the ears, among others," he said.
Also, as earphones are placed directly into the ear canal, they block the air passage which further increases chances of developing infections.
Byaruhanga says while most people use headphones when walking or jogging on the road and are so engrossed in their private world, they may lose sense of their sorroundings and, may therefore, be prone to accidents.
Besides accidents, earphones with high levels of sound can also increase psychological stress and anxiety. This can affect a person's social life, mental health and the ability to perform at optimum levels.
Chronic noise also affects a child's academic performance in areas such as reading ability, comprehension and memory.
WHAT CAN BE DONE
Babigamba advises that the volume of earphones should be kept at least below 60% of the maximum volume. And after every hour, it is advisable to remove headphones for five minutes, to give the ears some rest.
"Avoid using headphones for 24 hours after exposure to loud music to give the ears a chance to recover," he advises.
According to Babigamba, one should avoid using earphones that come in direct contact with the ear canal because they blast the noise directly.
Instead, he advises that one uses big headsets because they are not fixed inside the ears. Byaruhanga advises that before using the earphones, they should be sanitised to prevent a build-up of bacteria, sweat and shed skin. For earphones with sponge covers, one ought to change them once a month.
"Sharing earphones with others should be avoided and, if it is inevitable, one should clean them before use," he advised.
Byaruhanga adds that when travelling in a noisy transport means or even walking, it is better to avoid the use of earphones because the loud environment can tempt you to raise the volume. He adds that one can also purchase high-quality headphones, as they will block more of the environmental noise, thus allowing the user to reduce the volume.
In 2015, 247 scientists from 42 countries sent an appeal to the secretary-general of the United Nations, expressing their concern about the health effects associated with exposure to the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) emitted from wireless devices. Not much research has been done on the safety of long-term radiation exposure from Bluetooth or wireless headphones, according to Joel M. Moskowitz, PhD, the director of the Centre for Family and the Community Health at University of California, Berkeley.
While currently not much is known about the exact health risks associated with chronic use of in-ear wireless earbuds, scientists are beginning to understand the potential harm they may cause.
But according to neuroscientists at the University of Texas at Dallas, prolonged exposure to loud noise affects how the brain processes speech, potentially increasing the difficulty in distinguishing speech sounds.
The research shows that noise levels above 110 decibels strip insulation from nerve fibres carrying signals from the ear to the brain. Loss of the protective coating, called myelin, disrupts electrical nerve signals.
Also, the use of some earphones can affect the brain because of the electromagnetic waves generated by the headphones.
These can cause problems for the brain in the long term. Also, since the inner ear has a connection with the brain, any damage or infection, can affect it.
HOW TO CLEAN EARPHONES
Ears produce earwax to protect the skin of the human ear canal, assist in cleaning and lubrication and also provide some protection from bacteria, fungi, insects and water.
When earphones are in your ears, heat is being generated. Heat makes them practically a magnet for earwax. Heat melts the earwax and it re-settles on or in the earphones.
So even after a couple of uses, you will start to see some sort of residue build-up. To clean earphones, you will need dish soap, cotton, a toothbrush, rubbing alcohol and alcohol wipes.
Start by gently dry brushing the wax out of the earbud.
Hold them with the mesh facing down so that any debris can fall down as opposed to back into the earbud. Do not press too hard, you do not want to push the gunk in any further.
Once that is done, if you still see a waxy build-up, dip a cotton swab in rubbing alcohol, tap it off and then wipe the bud to remove anything remaining.
Then, take an alcohol wipe and clean the earbud and the surrounding area. This can mildly clean as well as disinfect the earbud. Rubbing alcohol dries lightning-fast and will not seep into the bud.
Soapy water or cleaning products or perfume, are not suitable cleaning agents for this job, because they will seep in and damage the innards of the earbud. If you have silicone covers, pop them off and soak
EARPHONES OR HEADPHONES? ANATOMY OF THE EAR
So, which is better for longterm hearing health: earbuds or headphones?
Both earbuds and headphones present the risk of high decibel levels and long exposure of noise being funnelled into your ears.
However, according to online sources, earbuds are actually more likely to cause damage.
Why? Well, since earbuds sit directly inside your ear and are very close to the ear canal, they actually increase the volume of sound by around nine decibels.
Headphones sit outside the ear, so there is less natural amplification of sound. But it is important to remember; headphones do not save your hearing, lower volume does.