Earbuds And IEMs Hurt Your Ears? 3 Causes And Fixes

Do headphones make your ears hurt a lot? Several things can cause this problem. But just as there are causes, there are also solutions for them and specific measures to prevent ear pain.

Are Your Earbuds Hurting Your Ears?

Earbuds are a fantastic invention. They can fit your ears perfectly, they don’t always require wires that usually get tangled up, and they can fit everywhere and still give you great clarity and depth when listening to music you love. However, sometimes earbuds can hurt a lot too.

If you have been using earbuds for a long time, you may have noticed that you get shooting pains in your ear canal whenever you take them off. This is a common problem that plagues many earbud users.

But why does it happen, and how can you fix it? There are three common causes known for this kind of issue. Each one has a solution that will allow you to keep listening to the songs you love without pain. In addition, we’re also going to list some common ways in which earbuds can hurt your ears.

By becoming aware of these, you will know when it’s time for you to seek professional help and some alternatives to earbuds that can hopefully fix the problem while still delivering great sound.

Anyway, without further ado, let’s get into the three most common causes for earbuds hurting and how to fix them:

1. The Way They’re Placed

One of the most common ways to accidentally give yourself ear pain while wearing earbuds is by placing them too deep into your ear canal. Wireless earbuds like air pods and IEMs (internal ear monitors) are supposed to have soft and comfortable tips that are designed to create a smooth seal between the entrance to your ear canal and the speaker inside the earbud.

However, they’re not meant to go into the ear canal itself, and when you put it that deep in, it can cause various problems.

When you place your earbuds inside your ear canal, the vibrations coming from the speaker can get dangerously close to the eardrum, which can have a lot of painful consequences. Some of these may be earaches, headaches, and even ear infections.

The best way to fix this is to be gentle when you place your earbuds into your ears and make sure that you’re only placing them as deep as the entrance to your ear canal. It would be best if you did not allow it to get entirely inside of it. Try putting the earbuds a little more outside than you would usually, and see if you notice any changes. If you do, it’s most likely because you were accidentally putting them far too deeply in the first place.

2. How They Fit

Your brand-new earbuds or IEMs may be causing you trouble because the tips aren’t the right size for your ears. The tips in IEMs are made of silicone meant to mold perfectly to the opening of your ear canal, but the truth is that every person is different in very subtle ways, and therefore has different features.

Considering this, you should be aware that some people’s ear canals are more expansive than others, so sometimes having too large tips can cause mild to severe ear pain.

If this is the case, you should probably switch the tips of your earbuds to a few sizes down. Companies like Apple offer earbuds in different sizes, from small or medium to large size. You can check online; they have all these different options available for purchase.

Moreover, IEMs offer even more range for customization since ear tips come in all different shapes and sizes and are made with different materials. Online forums like the audiophile subreddit have great sources on where to get replacement parts for earbuds at reasonable prices. Check this source so you can compare and contrast the different kinds of headphone tips available in the market and test out which one feels the most comfortable for you.

3. How Long You Wear Them

Earbuds can be highly comfortable and practical, which sometimes makes users forget that they’re wearing them in the first place. But this doesn’t mean that they’re meant to be worn all the time. According to multiple health sources, using earbuds for longer than ninety minutes can cause ear pains and aches.

Why does this happen? Well, it all comes down to the skin in your ear, which is called ‘cartilage.’ This type of skin is not taut, meaning it is not strong enough. Therefore, it is not meant to hold things like air pods for such a long period.

This is why using earbuds for longer than an hour, and a half can cause your ears to hurt or, worse, get infected. It is the primary reason why doctors recommend using earbuds for no more than 90 minutes at a time and then giving your ears some time to rest.

Common Causes Of Ear Damage From Earbuds

We have already gone through the most fundamental problems that people tend to have with earbuds. Now let’s look at some of the most common causes for ear pain while learning how to know when it’s time to call a professional.

Damage To The Pinna

Ear pain is the worst, it’s profoundly uncomfortable, and it can sometimes lead to worse symptoms like headaches and ear infections. We’ve already discussed earbud tips and how if they are the wrong size, they can end up causing pain. But the truth is that over-the-ear headphones can cause a great deal of pain, too.

Wearing headphones too tightly around the head, for example, can put too much pressure on your pinna or outerwear, which is the visible part of your auditory organ. Your pinna or outerwear is made of cartilage, a type of skin that is very sensitive. So, if you put unnecessary pressure on it, it can lead to ear pain and headaches that feel a lot like tension ones.

Wearing headphones too tightly around the head can damage the skin as well. If you wear over-the-ear headphones that are too tight for an extended period, your ear’s skin can chafe, which makes it itchy. This will prompt you to scratch the affected area, thereby breaking the skin and causing bleeding.

If something like that ever happens to you, stop wearing your headphones immediately. Clean out the bleeding by gently applying some rubbing alcohol to the area, and later apply Vaseline. Vaseline is great for skin chafing because it gives moisturization back to your skin. It will also promote your cells to regenerate faster, building a smooth protective layer to the touch that doesn’t itch.

In addition, the material the earpad is made out of can also cause you pain. With IEDs, for example, most tips are made with silicone. This material can cause serious adverse effects like aches and redden in the ear canal if you’re allergic. Other materials (incredibly low-priced ones) can also cause adverse effects like dermatitis or allergy-like symptoms since they’re doused in chemicals that irritate the skin.

Listening At A Volume That Exceeds The Danger Threshold

Another reason for ear pain can be excess volume. If you’re listening to music at a loud volume for an extended period, then this can significantly damage your ears. All noise that is over 85 decibels is damaging to the ear canal. Sounds above this threshold can cause temporary or even permanent hearing loss.

This kind of exposure to loud sound can also cause other symptoms, which can be immediate or develop later, like tinnitus. This condition generates humming or buzzing noises in the ears at all times.


Because earbuds are placed directly inside your ear, they carry the risk of causing ear infections. This is because earbuds that aren’t cleaned regularly and properly can bring unknown bacteria and debris into the ear canal, raising the risk of contamination. This becomes a bigger problem when earbuds (mostly staggeringly inexpensive ones) come with a one-size-fits-all mindset, damaging people who have slightly larger or smaller ears.

Excess Ear Wax

Wearing earbuds regularly can make it harder for your ears to clean out ear wax naturally. It’s true! This is why most doctors discourage their patients from using cotton swabs to clean the inside of their ear canals. Since not only do our ears have a natural way of cleaning themselves out, which makes a habit of cotton swabbing unnecessary, but cotton swabs also push the earwax further into the ear canal, which can lead to infections and blockages.

The same thing happens when you wear earbuds for an extended period. Having such a barrier in your ear canal makes it harder and harder for your ears to clean themselves out properly, which can cause several painful symptoms, including earaches, ear infections, and temporary to permanent loss of hearing.

Moreover, ear wax can get stuck to the earbuds, which means that every time you insert them, you’re putting old ear wax back into your ear canal. This can also cause a wide variety of problems. To avoid this, check that your earbuds are clean on the inside. If you see that they have an orange wax-like substance around the edges, that’s ear wax. You can easily remove this with a cotton swab or with tissue paper.

Regularly cleaning out your earbuds can significantly reduce the risk of building up excess ear wax and infections.

How To Relieve Ear Pain

Now that we’ve gone through all the potential reasons you could get earaches when you wear earbuds or headphones, let’s get into some of the ways to fix these particular issues and get your ears to feel better.

How To Relieve Ear Pain From Earbuds Or Headphones

Getting pains from expensive earbuds that are brand new, either because you bought them for yourself as a self-care present or because you received them from someone else, can be a considerable drag. Your first instinct may be to throw the earbuds away and buy a new pair or stuff the old one somewhere in your attic.

While this may seem like a good idea, throwing out earbuds or any product as soon as it malfunctions can harm you and the environment. For starters, you will end up spending more money on something that could malfunction in the same way as its predecessor. But you will also create excess waste produced by the earbuds and their packaging. This is why it’s better to find ways to fix the problem before entirely getting rid of the product.

You can decrease or even eliminate the amount of pain you get from wearing earbuds by:

  • Adjusting the earbuds so that they inflict less pressure on your ears
  • Giving your ears a break by removing them for an extended period, letting your ears recuperate, and minimizing the risk of hearing loss
  • Turning the volume down to less than 60%, so you stay comfortably below the danger threshold, and your ears don’t suffer.
  • Wearing earbuds for less than ninety minutes at a time
  • Taking over-the-counter medication for pain relief, such as Advil or Tylenol
  • Using over-the-counter eardrops for pain relief which you can find at any drugstore or pharmacy

How To Prevent And Avoid Ear Pain

In addition to giving your solutions, we will also give you a comprehensive guide on preventing getting ear pain. One of the easier ways to do this is by regularly cleaning your earbuds with a non-abrasive cloth. This reduces the risk of excess wax and ear infections in general.

You can also follow the same steps for decreasing ear pain, such as making sure you keep the volume at less than 60%, finding the right fit for your ears by making sure that they fit snugly, not too tight, or too loose, and avoid wearing your earbuds for longer than ninety-minute stretches. If you do have to wear earbuds for a long time like for example, if you’re on frequent online calls, make sure to take breaks between wearing them to give your ears a well-deserved break.

When To Seek Professional Help For Your Ear Pain

However, sometimes ear problems can’t be soiled so easily and need to be looked at by a professional. The way to tell if your particular issue is worthy of being looked at by a doctor is thinking back to how long you’ve had these problems. If the earaches last for longer than twenty hours, it may be time to consult a doctor.

Furthermore, if you believe that your ears could be at risk of infection or injury, then contact your healthcare provider as well. It is always better to be safe than to be sorry.

Alternatives To Earbuds

If you’re tired of earbuds causing you pain and you’d like to swap them out for other forms of listening to music, that’s understandable. Technology is meant to help humankind, not harm it, and create excessive ear pains and aches.

Luckily, there are better alternatives out there that are just as good as earbuds and can cause significantly less pain and stress. If you’d like to hear more about these options, pay attention to this section, where we discuss all the alternatives to earbuds.

Traditional Padded Headphones

Tradition headphones with generous padding can be a lifesaver for people who experience frequent ear pain. You can find this at any tech store, and although some models are significantly larger than earbuds, you can find headphones that are still relatively small and have that sleek, futuristic look you’re hoping for.

However, this is not to say that padded headphones are unable to cause pain. If they fit too tightly around your head or the headphones themselves are either too big or too small for your ears, they can cause trouble. To avoid this, make sure to test out the headphones before you buy them, so you know what you’re getting.

Noise Cancelling Headphones

Noise-canceling headphones are also very kind to our ears as well as extremely practical. The noise cancelation feature can block out sounds that are harmful to our ears because of the high rate of decibels, and these also come with a wider variety of features that you can tweak to your liking.

While these types of headphones are maybe a little more expensive, they’re ultimately a worthwhile investment since they have fewer chances for ear pain and tend to be better at reproducing sound.

There Is Still A Chance For Earbuds

To recap, we’ve looked at some of the most common ways in which earbuds can harm your ears and even some alternatives to earbuds. However, this doesn’t mean that you have to eliminate earbuds from your life altogether. There are multiple ways to adjust them to stop causing you pain and even prevent pain itself.

In addition to this, there are multiple ways to relieve ear pain, such as with special drops and over-the-counter pain medication, before having them checked by a professional.

Audiophile Haven

AudiophileHaven is a site dedicated to Hi-Fi audio, and helping others learn more about premium quality sound equipment.

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