March 20, 2012 at 4:11 pm

When Earbuds Attack: A Cautionary Tale (with a Horrifying Photo)

when earbuds attack


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 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:

Sweet relief

(To learn what you can do to protect your hearing, see my 2006 article on preventing hearing loss.)

  • Anthony Gordon

    Dios mio!

  • Michael G. Frank

    Yikes, you would have had better luck at the Pediatric clinic. They are pretty good at extracting things from ears etc. Stay away from legos just in case.

  • Thomas Molesky

    thi s happened to me a few years ago – same thing with the q-tip… but I pushed it in deeper!

  • Sean McNally

    I recommend the JVC XX over the ear headphones! They sound good and sit comfortably on my head :)

  • Tmr

    You are a complete bitch.

  • wc fields

    i’ve read that earbuds are also contributing to profound hearing loss in kids. there is no way for air to exit the ear with an earbud in, so all of the sound pressure bounces off your eardrum, unlike headsets, which have airspace between the foam covering and your ear canal. i personally hate earbuds, and prefer over the head style phones.

  • The Doctor

    I recommend Beats by Dre!!lol

  • guest

    Just curious, what was the cost of removing the object? I had a similar situation and was shocked to see they charged me $330 (w/o insurance) for a procedure that took about two minutes to remove the object.


  • emily

     a question for both of you… i’ve been having the same exact experience the past couple days, convinced i had swimmer’s ear. finally, today i flushed out the tip of a q-tip :/, but otherwise no wax, etc. and yet i still feel really sore, pained, and stuffed up in the ear. did either of you develop an infection after removing the object? gonna check in again with my doc in the morning but it’s gonna be a long night :(((

  • Alex

    I had mine done last night. What relief that’s all it was. Total cost: ZERO. Thanks, Canadian health care!

  • Dillon Luttrell

    i just had to go to the ER b/c and entire beats by dre tri-tip inner ear bud got swallowed up by my ear canal….the doctors were freaking that the pulled something that big out of my ear…im having serious trouble hearing out of the ear now and will be going to the ear dr. on monday…


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    m.akila, searching telemarketing job, 7708843399,, expected salary :: 5000 PM,

  • bagel

    my boyfriend had an earbud stuck for years (2). i noticed something in his ear. we thought it was a bug, a tumor, anything, but that.

    i have no clue how he never noticed, but i’ve had a great laugh ever since.

  • SSP

    I just had a silicone earbud taken out. I tried with straight edged and needle nose tweezers to no avail. A relative looked in my ear and couldn’t see it, so it was in pretty deep.
    The doctor used an alligator clamp which resembles scissors. The clamp fit into a hole in the lighting device that they shine in your ears. That way, he wasn’t working blindly.
    He pushed very hard and it was quite uncomfortable and it took him two attempts. The whole procedure took one minute.

  • jimbo

    I just had the exact same thing happen. My neighbors couldn’t even see it in there but tried. Finally one of them said ‘maybe you can feel it, try with the tweezers.’ He was RIGHT! I could feel it way better than they could see and I got it right out! Don’t freak out, it’s soft silicon and won’t hurt you even if it stays in there for days and days. lean your head to the side and gently put the tweezers in until you feel it then pull it right out, Easy!

  • kady

    Did you get dizzy afterwards also weak stomach and headache my bf had one for the last year and didn’t know it saw something blue in his ears so I cautiously removed it im a ma for all smart comment’s need help please

  • kady

    Did he feel any dizziness or headache afterwards my bf had one in for almost two years if so what did you do

  • Aaron

    Time for a proper set of customs… Try JH Audio.

  • JAy Wo

    Had exact same thing happen to me on a flight. I immediately thought that the little screen on the end of the ear bug was still in my ear. Two days later (as I thought it would work it’s way out) I went to ER and sure enough, that $100 pair of earphones were really no put together that well. I was too lazy to send the manufacturer the $100 bill!

  • hempfestival

    just to add up to this blog, I did have the same issue with the gel audio cap left inside my right ear, I couldn’t tell exactly if it was there but went to the ER and the ear doctor had to use 3 different tweezers until the last one did the job as it was very deep inside the ear canal .. it took him about 10 mins . I still wear those gel audio caps but don’t push it too hard inside so I don’t get it stuck again.

  • Jo

    Time to get a set of proper custom eaphones! They arent cheap though. Got mine at in the UK but they ship globally I believe.

  • Alex

    Lol to be honest this same thing happened to me funny thing is I had the same earbuds but in black and not just a piece broke off the whole entire earbud was in my ear like you said I could hear just fine but it hurt so bad my doctor didn’t see it in there? So I was like alright I’m done with this and pulled it out with some tweezers I was so in shock when I pulled this black earbud out of my ear it was in there a whole entire year without me even noticing this happened when I fell during snowboarding one year I hit my head hard and ear bud was missing and my ear was killing I should of put 2 and 2 together but I waited a whole year to pull it out luckily it didn’t cause any damage

  • Alex Mclean

    Oh really….so it will prolly cost me hundreds to get this q tip cotton stuck in my ear out right? Prolly painful too greattttt

  • Alex Mclean

    What did you do about the q tip I have one that’s been stuck for a year and I’m scared about what’s gunna happen when I go to a doctor

  • em

    same thing happened to me with a qtip. at the doctor’s, they tried flushing it out to no avail. but they recommended debrox, which you can get over the counter. buy it!! it’s the only thing that worked. after using that for a few days, it came out on it’s own. good luck!