This article was written by Dr. Babar Naeem (MBBS, MRCPCH) – a licensed and practicing medical doctor – to ensure maximum factual accuracy and unique content.
I often use headphones to listen to relaxing music before bed to calm my anxiety.
But what if you fall asleep with them on – is sleeping in headphones bad for you or even dangerous?
Sleeping with headphones on in the short term is relatively safe as long as the volume is kept very low – longer-term use of sleeping with earphones on for extended periods can increase the risk of hearing loss, ear wax build-up, bacterial infections, and tinnitus.
So how can you sleep in headphones safely?
The safest way to sleep with headphones on is to use headphones made specifically for sleep or wireless earbuds to avoid strangulation; keep the volume to below 60 dB; and minimize the overall time of use – ideally for no more than 1 hour before sleeping.
In the rest of this article, I have used my expert medical knowledge and research skills to explain in more detail how sleeping in headphones can be bad for you and the solutions.
The 8 Dangers of Sleeping With Headphones On
Here are the 8 potential dangers of sleeping with headphones on explained in more detail:
1: Risk of Strangulation (Very Minor)
If you sleep with wired earphones on, then there is a minor risk of strangulation – although most teens and adults will have the awareness and dexterity to untangle the wire before damage is caused as long as they are sober; children will be more at risk.
Choosing wireless headphones will prevent this problem.
2: Build-Up of Earwax (Common)
Earwax, or cerumen, is produced in the ear by special glands to clean and protect the ears.
It is produced in the deeper part of the ear and moves out with the movements of the jaw.
When headphones are used for a long time, the natural excretion of the wax is impaired.
It accumulates in the ear and puts pressure on the tympanic membrane (eardrum).
This results in pain, fullness, hearing loss, and vertigo.
If left untreated, profound hearing loss can be caused by wax impaction.
The growth of the bacteria is also increased and can result in otitis externa.
According to research, wearing headphones for 60 minutes increases the number of bacteria by 700 times .
If you experience wax impaction, the best solution is to avoid using headphones.
You can use a few drops of olive or almond oil to soften the wax.
I always recommend my patients avoid putting anything in the ear to remove the wax, as that can push it deep into the ear canal.
If symptoms are not improved, you should consult a general practitioner for ear irrigation and micro-suction .
3: Increased Risk of Bacterial Infections (Fairly Common)
Wearing headphones increases the chances of getting infections due to multiple factors.
First of all, wearing headphones increases the humidity and temperature of the ear, and creates a perfect environment for the growth of bacteria.
Wearing headphones can create skin abrasions that introduce microorganisms into the bloodstream .
There are different types of ear infections that are caused by headphones.
An infection of the middle ear is called otitis media, while that of the ear canal is called otitis externa.
A fungal infection of the ear is very rare and is called otomycosis.
If you are experiencing fever, ear discharge, or other ear infection symptoms, you should take plenty of fluids and antipyretics.
Antibiotics are usually not needed, as the infection is self-limiting.
Keeping the ear dry is very important for controlling the disease .
4: Hearing Loss (Possible Over Time)
Many headphone users have reported hearing loss.
A study conducted in Malaysia reported that the incidence of hearing loss was 21.2% among headphone users .
Another study reported that individuals who use headphones for more than 3 hours were more likely to have tinnitus.
A higher incidence of noise-induced impairment was reported in those who wear headphones while sleeping .
Listening to music above 60 decibels for an extended period can damage hair cells and nerves in the ear, resulting in sensorineural hearing loss.
If these issues are not identified and treated in time, the patient can suffer from lifelong hearing loss.
5: Tinnitus (Possible)
Tinnitus is a condition in which a person experiences ringing, hissing, or buzzing sensations in their ears without any external source.
It is a very common problem experienced by almost 10% of the American population.
The presence of tinnitus can be an early sign of hearing loss, so you should always consult a doctor if you experience such symptoms.
Increased frequency of headphone use, and listening to loud sounds, can result in tinnitus and hearing loss.
Although there is no cure for tinnitus, Ginkgo biloba is usually prescribed for symptom control.
A hearing assessment is mandatory to rule out hearing loss.
The best remedy is to minimize headphone use, avoid loud noise, and use noise-canceling headphones.
A study conducted in Brazil found that tinnitus was experienced by 38.9% of headphone users .
6: Limited Sleeping Positions (Can Be Solved Easily)
Side sleeping is very uncomfortable for people using headphones, as the pressure of the pillow or the mattress can push the earpiece into or out of the ear.
Back sleeping or sleeping on the stomach are the only positions that people using headphones can choose.
These positions lessen the risk of strangulation and dislodgement.
If you are a side-sleeper, you can select a headband to increase comfort.
7: Radiation Exposure (Very Low Risk)
The use of any electronic device exposes us to radiation.
Output devices, like cell phones or tablets, are the most significant radiation source.
Wired headphones transmit only a small amount of radiation, and are one of the safest options available.
The closer a cellphone is to the body, the larger the radiation dose that is delivered.
When the distance between the cell phone and the body is increased, the radiation hazard decreases.
This can be done by choosing headphones with a long wire and placing the phone on a surface far from the bed.
Another option is picking a wireless phone, or playing music on an external speaker.
8: Unaware of Surroundings (Possibly Dangerous)
The ears are a vital sensory organ, designed to respond to the sounds in one’s surroundings.
When we use headphones we are disconnected from our surroundings.
Although this is useful for getting good sleep, it can also become problematic in certain settings.
For example, you may not hear a fire alarm when you have your earphones on.
The risk of accidents is increased when headphones are used while walking.
A person may end up living in a world of their own and can become anti-social.
Research conducted in the United States studied the data from 2004 to 2011 and reported that 116 people died or were injured while wearing headphones.
These people could not hear the sound of an approaching vehicle and suffered an accident .
8 Ways to Sleep in Headphones Safely
Although sleeping with headphones carries some potential risks, there are numerous benefits, as well.
In some situations, headphones are essential to ensuring a night of good quality sleep – for example:
If you are using a CPAP machine for your sleep apnea, your spouse snores, or you are sleeping in the hospital after some therapy, the use of headphones offers the best solution for blocking out the noise and delivering relaxing music.
A study conducted at the Institute of Behavioural Sciences, Hungary, demonstrated that listening to music while sleeping improved sleep quality significantly.
Depressive symptoms were also decreased significantly.
Researchers proposed that listening to music can be used to treat insomnia and sleep problems .
Keeping in mind the importance of headphones used in all of these situations, it becomes very important to know the best ways to use headphones safely.
I have compiled a list of simple-to-follow tips that you can use to avoid the risks posed by headphone use.
1: Minimize the Use of Headphones
A most simple and obvious solution for avoiding the risks associated with headphone use is to reduce the time spent using headphones.
Hearing loss, build-up of wax, and infection rate depend on the duration of the exposure, and the risk can be decreased by decreasing the time spent using headphones.
However, this may seem impossible to some people who cannot sleep without relaxing music.
Even then, there is still a lot that you can do to give your ears a break.
First of all, you should avoid using headphones during the day.
Texting is a better option than talking over the headphones.
You can use an earpiece for one ear for a certain length of time (say 30 minutes) and then switch to the other ear.
2: Use Headphones Specifically Made for Sleep
Most of the problems caused by headphones are due to the use of cheap and uncomfortable ones.
Gamers’ headphones are the worst and are responsible for the high incidence of hearing loss in teenagers.
It would be best if you always used headphones designed specifically for sleep.
They are more comfortable and last longer than the traditional ones.
Although they cost more, investing in a good quality sleeping aid is always better than suffering from insomnia and sleeplessness.
3: Use Wireless Headphones
Headphone wires can get tangled, damaged, or wrapped around your neck.
These risks are higher for a side sleeper, as when they turn onto the other side, the wires are likely to become tangled.
The simple solution is to use wireless headphones, avoiding this problem.
Wireless headphones are battery-operated devices that connect to the source device via Bluetooth.
4: Keep the Volume Low
Keeping the volume of the music low is necessary to avoid hearing loss caused by loud sounds.
As I have explained earlier, when we watch a movie or listen to music above 60 dB, the chances of hearing loss are increased.
The NHS states that hearing sounds at 85 dB or more is harmful.
It is useful to know that normal conversation is held at 60 decibels, the sound of busy traffic is 85 decibels, a motorbike puts out approximately 90 decibels, and the sound of a plane taking off is 120 decibels .
So wearing headphones while in a noisy place is a good idea.
However, even while sleeping, our nerves and hair cells are stimulated by sound and can be damaged by it.
So the best idea for avoiding noise-induced hearing loss is to keep the volume as low as possible.
Another good strategy is to form a list of relaxing tracks that you want to listen to while sleeping.
Playing random music can have a lot of variations in the sound that may be detrimental to the ears.
Noise-canceling headphones are an excellent choice for improving concentration.
They block out the environmental noises and offer a safe level of sound.
5: Clean Your Ears Regularly
If you are using headphones for an extended period, it is always a good idea to clean your ears at least once a month to clear out excess wax.
If the wax is soft, it can easily be removed with a soft cotton swab.
But if it is hard and impacted, you should use soda glycerin drops for a few days to loosen the wax.
If the symptoms are not improved, you should immediately visit a doctor for micro-suction.
Another very important point that I always tell my patients is to avoid putting anything deep into the ear to remove the wax – it can push the wax deep into the ear canal, or damage the eardrum (tympanic membrane).
I have seen patients who have ruptured their tympanic membrane while trying to remove the wax.
The goal of cleaning the ears is to remove the wax that is visible to you.
ENT doctors have a famous saying that goes, “you should clean your ears with your elbow” (meaning you should not clean them at all – the elbow is too large to fit in the ear canal, and wouldn’t be able to reach it, anyway).
6: Choose Lightweight Headphones
Weight is another very important factor that should be considered when selecting headphones.
Headphones typically range in weight from 3 to 14 ounces.
Lightweight headphones are more comfortable to wear for a long time and produce fewer problems when the wearer changes sleep positions.
7: Take Good Care of Your Headphones
Headphones are not designed to last forever, and regardless of their price and quality, their performance tends to deteriorate over time.
Taking good care of your headphones can extend their lifetime, and avoid the associated problems.
Here is a list of simple tips that you can easily follow:
- Regular cleaning of the headphones is essential for removing wax, dirt, and dead cells. The earpiece should be gently cleaned with soft, dry cotton. Alcohol or any other liquid is not recommended for cleaning purposes.
- You should not share your headphones with others. Sharing headphones increases the risks of transmission of germs, increasing the chances of getting ear infections. If you have lent your headphones to someone, always remember to clean them before use.
- The wire should be handled carefully, as it is one of the most vulnerable parts of the headphones. Knots and tight coiling should be avoided.
- Moisture is not suitable for any electronic device, and headphones are no exception. The presence of moisture can promote the growth of the bacteria, short circuit the wires, and erode the protective outer layer of the headphones. So these devices should be stored in a moisture-free place, and the use of silica gel is also recommended.
- Headphones shouldn’t be left plugged in when not in use. They should be disconnected from the source to avoid damaging the jack.
8: Use Alternate Options for Reducing Environmental Noise
Although most people are comfortable using headphones during sleep, if you cannot sleep with headphones in, there are many alternate options available that you can use to create the same benefits.
Earplugs offer a simple, cheap, and effective alternative to headphones.
They block out the background noise without exposing the wearer to radiation.
The connecting device is also not needed, and the mess of wires is avoided.
Earplugs are especially useful while traveling, or in busy traffic.
Please remember that earplugs can also cause otitis externa and wax impaction.
External speakers are another way to play relaxing music without using headphones.
The risk of strangulation by the wires, wax build-up, and increased ear infections, is avoided.
You can sleep in any sleeping position you want, without having to worry about the risk of headphone dislodgment.
It would help if you chose relaxing music, and set the volume to as low as possible.
Room modifications can be done to make the sleeping environment more sleep-friendly.
The addition of a thick curtain can mask the background noises, and dimming the light is helpful for sleep.
A white noise machine is a device that produces a particular sound to mask environmental noise, which helps with sleep.
A recent study conducted in the United States proved that white noise machines reduced the time for onset of sleep by 38% .
Studies have also demonstrated that it is also helpful for sleep induction in children.
Many sounds apps are available that play music, stories, or sounds, to induce sleep.
They can be played with or without speakers.
Conclusion: Keep Headphone Use to a Minimum
Headphones are very useful for people who have difficulty sleeping due to a noisy environment.
However, prolonged use of headphones can cause hearing loss, tinnitus, wax impaction, and increased ear infections.
These problems can be avoided by decreasing the time spent using headphones, choosing the right headphones, and opting for alternate options.
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This website does not offer medical advice – seek guidance from a qualified medical professional.
Image Attribution and Licensing
Main image: ‘Woman sleeping on bed and listening music with headphones and smartphone’ by davidpradoperucha – (used with permission and commercially licensed through Envato Elements).
Dan is the founder and head content creator at Bedroom Style Reviews.
He has been working as a professional online product reviewer since 2015 and was inspired to start this website when he ended up sleeping on a memory foam mattress that was too soft and gave him backache.
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Dan is a qualified NVQ Level 2 Fitness Instructor with 6 years’ experience helping clients improve their health through diet, exercise, and proper sleep hygiene.
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