First, take a deep breath. You don’t have to see the photo unless you click on it below.
With that out of the way, prepare for some bad news about in-ear headphones… yes, the very same ones I have championed in this publication, as well as on CNET and Wired.com over the past decade or so.
Update: May the Foam Be With You
Last Wednesday as my flight from Austin, Texas touched down in New York (see our full SXSW Interactive coverage), I failed to observe something of importance. One of my Etymotic earbuds was not like the other (see photo to the right).
I’ve never had an ear infection or even an earache in my entire life, yet over the next few days, I felt a dull and occasionally sharp pain in my ear — especially when sleeping on my left side.
Oh well, I figured. There’s a first time for everything. I was wrong.
Over the weekend, I tried to use a Q-Tip (doctor’s tip: never use Q-Tips) on my left ear, but it wouldn’t go in. And it hurt. A lot. Oddly, I could still use these earbuds, because the left one was now substantially shorter than the right one.
I’m ashamed to admit that it took me until Sunday to suspect what now seems to have been obvious: The missing section of earbud was lodged in my ear canal, thus the “earache.” Duh.
In my defense, I just couldn’t believe it was in my ear because I could hear just fine. And I wasn’t in that much pain, at least not all the time. I asked my “diary” (a.k.a. hundreds of Facebook friends) if such a thing was possible: Could I really have a piece of rubber lodged in my ear and not really notice it? Friends and relatives unanimously suggested that I seek medical attention. One friend said he’s nearly deaf in one ear, due to not dealing with an ear injury hastily enough.
With that in mind, I packed food, water, and a really long book, and walked reluctantly to the emergency room on Monday night. Sure enough, the attending nurse spotted the offending earbud tip stuck firmly in my left ear canal. Doing something about it was another matter entirely. Three times, she tried to dig it out with tweezers, causing no small amount of discomfort. Three times, she failed, before the emergency room sent me home with a note suggesting I see an ENT (ear, nose, and throat specialist) as soon as possible.
And so it was that I approached an Ear, Nose and Throat clinic this morning — with no small amount of trepidation after what I’d endured the previous night. However, I was in excellent hands. The clinic’s lead otologist, Neil M. Sperling, M.D., assured me I had nothing to worry about. (And as it turned out, we had something in common: Both of us have appeared on WNYC’s Sound Check program — he to discuss hearing loss prevention, and I to discuss music apps.)
After taking a photo of the earbud tip lodged in my ear canal, which you can view below, if you dare, he had another doctor remove it. The extraction took all of three seconds, and was totally painless. Victory at last!
According to Dr. Sperling, who also uses Etymotic earbuds and recommends their in-ear hearing protectors, he sees plenty of cases just like mine. Indeed, three of my friends have had this happen to them too. It’s nowhere near as uncommon as I’d thought.
“Earbuds, hearing aids, and anything with a rubber tip” can become dislodged and stay in the ear, he said, requiring skilled medical intervention (i.e. preferably not by the general nurse practitioner in the ER). Sperling also said heat and moisture inside the ear can fatigue rubber faster than we might imagine, so we should replace the rubber tips on our in-ear earbuds more frequently than most of us probably do. That should help ensure that the tips don’t, you know, leave part of themselves in our ears.
Thanks, but no thanks. I’m now in the market for some nice over-the-ear headphones — the kind you don’t need to worry about breaking off and sending you for an expensive torture session in the emergency room.
Now for that photo, which Dr. Sperling was kind enough to load onto my flash drive earlier today. Here it is, although again, it’s not for the squeamish: ear-foreign-body.jpg.
For the rest of you, here’s a shot of the offending earbud tip after the extraction:
(To learn what you can do to protect your hearing, see my 2006 Wired.com article on preventing hearing loss.)