Skip to main content
Skip to main content

Media Relations

Burning Question: Should You Share Earbuds?

Burning Question: Should You Share Earbuds?

 One expert's advice on keeping bacteria from spreading

By: Heidi Mitchell

April 7, 2014 6:26 p.m. ET


Teens love to share music, and that often involves sharing earbuds. Does it also mean sharing germs and disease? One expert, Lisa Sturm, director of Infection Control and Epidemiology at the University of Michigan Health System, offers advice on keeping bacteria from spreading.

Canal Culture

"The hot, humid air trapped in your ear canal while wearing earbuds is a great environment for bacteria to thrive," says Ms. Sturm. Some bacteria, like MRSA, a type of Staphylococcus that resists treatment with antibiotics, can live up to a week on an inanimate object without a host, she says. That said, although earbuds are capable of transferring germs, that doesn't necessarily bring disease. The ear canal is good at carrying sound but not so good at letting foreign substances, like pathogens, into the body.


So while a person could potentially transfer MRSA, pseudomonas, streptococcus or other infectious illnesses by sharing earbuds, "unless you are immunosuppressed from something like chemotherapy, diabetes or a transplant, the risk of getting a disease from using someone else's earbuds is very low," she says.


Germ Magnets


Earbuds with fine wire mesh can pick up bacteria from an open wound—a shaving nick or an infection, for example–and keep it protected for days or even a week, since it's very hard to clean between the wires.


Molded plastic versions may be better at picking up wax, which could also keep bacteria cozy. Those pathogens can then transfer to any part of the body where there is a skin break "even your hands," says Ms. Sturm. But the chance of that happening isn't any higher than something else people use close to their ears, like a cellphone.


Ditching earbuds for headphones could present other problems, she says. "One of the favorite places for lice to live is in the hairline behind the ears," says Ms. Sturm. "And those little white nits are very sticky and could easily attach onto the foam headphones where you wouldn't see them."


Earbud Research


A 2008 study in India found that among frequent users of earbuds, bacterial growth was significantly higher in the ears and on the earbuds, compared with people who used the devices infrequently. The study, which involved 50 medical students, suggested that earbud sharing could transfer bacteria to another person. Still, Ms. Sturm says, "that study did not look at infections, just the presence of bacteria—which our bodies are covered in."


Alcohol Kills


Earbuds should be cleaned "on some type of routine basis," Ms. Sturm says. If there is anything visible on an earbud, wipe it with a disinfectant "or hit it with a cotton ball soaked in isopropyl alcohol," she says.


She uses a similar technique at home on her son's earbuds, which she finds on the floor and even being played with by the cat. "Those pads will kill just about any bacteria, and the alcohol is very fast-drying so my son can pop the earbuds back in his ear in seconds," she says.


And if you have a sore in your ear, don't share earbuds. Ms. Sturm says her son doesn't share his earbuds, though he says all his friends do. But his mom isn't worried. "Most kids are pretty immune to normal bacteria out there, otherwise they'd be getting sick all the time," she says.


—Email questions to

All News  Now Viewing Category: All
Glasgow News
School of Journalism & Broadcasting
WKU Regional Campuses
Kinesiology, Recreation & Sport
Housing & Residence Life
Media Relations
Academic Affairs
Augenstein Alumni Center
Instruments of American Excellence
Emergency Preparedness
Department of Music
Department of Theatre & Dance
Library News
Office of Sustainability
Office of International Programs
Office of Research
Ogden News
WKU Parent and Family Weekend
Parent's Association
Student Activities and Organizations
Scholarships Student Financial Assistance
Student Government Association News
Van Meter Auditorium
Teaching News
Study Abroad
Student Research Council
Student Employment
WKU Joint Admissions
International Student Office
Human Resources News
Cultural Enhancement Series
The Confucius Institute
Campus Activities Board
The Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky
Development and Alumni Relations
Downing Student Union
Health Services
Hardin Planetarium
News from The Center for Gifted Studies
Student Financial Assistance
Downing Museum
Etown & Fort Knox
Employee Wellness
Latest Headlines
The Gatton Academy selects 95 students for Class of 2019

The Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky has selected 95 Kentucky sophomores for the Class of 2019.

Confucius Institute at WKU hosts inaugural Chinese Bridge Competition

Sixty-five students showcased their knowledge of Chinese language and culture during the Confucius Institute at WKU’s inaugural Chinese Bridge Competition on March 25.

'Focus on Innovation' program serves as resource for small businesses

The WKU Small Business Accelerator continued its collaboration with the Central Region Office of the Kentucky Innovation Network to host its quarterly Focus on Innovation small group discussion on March 28.

Featured Articles

Note: documents in Portable Document Format (PDF) require Adobe Acrobat Reader 5.0 or higher to view,
download Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Note: documents in Excel format (XLS) require Microsoft Viewer,
download excel.

Note: documents in Word format (DOC) require Microsoft Viewer,
download word.

Note: documents in Powerpoint format (PPT) require Microsoft Viewer,
download powerpoint.

Note: documents in Quicktime Movie format [MOV] require Apple Quicktime,
download quicktime.

 Last Modified 9/24/14