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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.


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