Fort Worth, Texas,
15:49 PM

Earbud Alert: A Warning For Parents About Their Child’s Personal Listening Device

It was supposed to be an easy but productive Sunday afternoon. My plan for the day was to get a jump start on packing for an upcoming vacation. For once, I was going to get ahead of the game.

Then, I heard these words.

“Mom, I think a piece of my earbud came off and is stuck inside my ear.”

What? That’s not supposed to happen, right? Surely these things are constructed in a way that ensures no piece of it will come off inside my 12-year-old’s ear. I trust earbud manufacturers have thought of that.

Upon examination, a piece of it was, in fact, missing. We scoured the area where my son was sitting, hopeful that it had fallen off onto the chair or floor. It was nowhere to be found.

My only recourse? Urgent care… on a Sunday afternoon… in the middle of an RSV outbreak and COVID-19 surge.

My easy, yet productive Sunday afternoon plan just went out the window. Off to urgent care we went. It would be more than an hour and a half of waiting in the car to get the call that it was our turn to come in to see a physician, and it took all of two minutes for the physician to locate the rogue earbud piece and extract it from my son’s ear canal. Waiting time well spent knowing his ear was free and clear of anything that shouldn’t be there.

The experience left me wondering. Is this a thing? Has it happened to others? If so, how common is it?

I set out to find some answers and tips for those who might find themselves in similar situations. Charles Saadeh, M.D., an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist on the medical staff at Cook Children’s Medical Center, kindly answered my questions.

Safety First

Turns out, having a foreign body in the ear canal is one of the more common reasons that patients end up in Dr. Saadeh’s ENT clinic. He estimates that about 10 to 20% of those visits are related to earbuds.

Even so, Dr. Saadeh says earbuds are generally safe if your child has a normal, dry ear without any drainage or hearing impairment. Before you plug those little ears with an earbud, make sure they’re healthy.

Size Matters

Earbuds aren’t one size fits all. Some designs fit better than others. Dr. Saadeh says earbuds should fit well and be comfortable. Research different designs and sizes to determine the best option for your kid. You may have to try a few before you settle on one.

Over ear headphones are preferable if headphones with earbuds just don’t fit right,” Dr. Saadeh said.

Mind The Volume

The biggest danger with earbuds, or any personal listening device, is the volume. Too loud and your child can permanently damage their hearing.

Noise induced hearing loss is becoming more common. No doubt because of the increased use of personal devices. In fact, 1.1 billion young people globally are at risk for hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices, according to the World Health Organization. That’s partly because many kids turn the volume up too high, damaging the tiny hair cells in the ear that send sound messages to the brain. Once the damage is done, it can’t be repaired.

“You have one chance to protect your hearing,” Dr. Saadeh said. “The hearing damage we do now will catch up to us in 20 to 30 years. So, if it hurts, turn down the volume.”

Dr. Saadeh likes the 60/60 rule. Don’t allow the sound level to climb above 60% of the maximum volume, and listen for no more than 60 minutes at a time. There are volume control settings on devices and apps that parents can use to set sound limits on their child’s electronics. Do an online search for “volume limiter for kids” to get the scoop on these.

Step Away From the Q-Tip

Bless his heart, my son tried to remove that tiny earbud piece by attempting to dig it out with a Q-tip before telling me what had happened. I apparently failed to teach him that we do not, under any circumstances, stick things into our ear canal, even Q-tips. And I’m not disparaging the usefulness of Q-tips here. It’s own box is labeled with this warning.

If you fear your kid has a foreign body in their ear, call your pediatrician or an ENT, and leave it to the professionals to remove. Using a Q-tip may push the object further into the ear and damage the eardrum. I’ve since had this discussion with all three of my fearless boys.

“We can get foreign body cases into the clinic very quickly, although a lot of these issues are not emergencies,” Dr. Saadeh said. “The one thing to keep in mind that is an emergency is a battery. If there is any concern that there's a disc battery in the ear, we consider that an emergency, and it needs to be seen as soon as possible.”

Signs that your child might have something lodged in their ear include complaints of muffled hearing or pain due to fluid build up and subsequent infection behind the foreign body.

So, there you have it. Everything I learned about earbud safety thanks to an untimely mishap. We haven’t sworn off earbuds forever, but we are a little more careful about their design and fit.

By the way, those particular earbuds went into the trash. Actually, my son asked if he could destroy them with a hammer first. He finds deconstructing fun. I allowed it. At least someone besides the steady-handed urgent care doctor did something productive that day.

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