Maybe you live in a city that never sleeps and the sirens blare until the wee hours of the morning. Or maybe you’re not lucky enough to beat your partner in bed, so his snoring keeps you up at night. Rather than losing sleep, you grab your headphones and listen to the soothing sounds of a gentle rain to block out all the chaos.
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But is sleeping with headphones on a good idea? Or do you risk damaging your ears even when you’re not listening to music?
Audiologist Valerie Pavlovich Ruff, AuD, explains why sleeping with headphones on can be safe as long as you have the right kind of headphones and keep the volume down.
Why people choose to sleep with headphones
If you’re trying to improve your sleep hygiene, there are several reasons why you might want to wear headphones while you sleep, including:
- Noise blocking.
- Stress relief.
- Getting into the right headspace.
Dr. Pavlovich Ruff says that people who tend to have ringing in their ears (tinnitus) are most often interested in sleeping with headphones on because they want that ringing to stop so they can get a full night’s rest uninterrupted. There are a few things that can cause this ringing, including:
- Medication side effects.
- Excess caffeine.
- Large doses of aspirin.
- Hearing loss.
- Ear trauma caused by loud sounds like a firecracker or physical injury.
- Excessive exposure to noise from work or recreational activities without hearing protection.
- Physical stress like weightlifting.
“Emotional stress can also cause ringing in the ears,” says Dr. Pavlovich Ruff. “That’s why a lot of people might want to fall asleep listening to something soothing or relaxing just to relieve stress.”
Can you sleep better?
It’s possible to improve your sleep with headphones, or at least improve how you settle into your bedtime routine. But Dr. Pavlovich Ruff says it comes down to wearing the right kind of headphones and how you intend to use them.
Avoid noise canceling headphones in an emergency
“What if your phone rings because someone is trying to reach you or if there is another emergency around you?” asks Dr. Pavlovich Ruff. “Would you be able to hear these things?” That would be my biggest concern.
Keep your volume just over half or less
A good rule of thumb: if someone is standing within arm’s reach of you, they shouldn’t be able to hear what you’re listening to, and you should be able to hear them talking to you without taking your headphones off.
On average, most people can listen to sounds at 85 decibels for up to eight hours without any negative impact. But if you’re listening to anything above 85 decibels, you should cut your listening time in half for every 3 decibels you add. So, for example, if you’re listening to something at 88 decibels, you can only safely do so for four hours. Dr. Pavlovich Ruff suggests setting your headset volume to just over half or less and not wearing it too long.
“The key here is volume and listening time,” says Dr. Pavlovich Ruff. “You can listen to music all day if it’s at a safe level, but if you listen at a very loud level, you can damage your hearing in as little as 15 minutes.”
In a study of self-reported hearing and listening habits, those who listened to music for more than three hours were more likely to have ringing in their ears. And 10% said they listened to music between 90 and 100 decibels for longer periods of time, even while sleeping, which could increase their risk of future hearing losses.
In-ear headphones can cause discomfort and bacterial infections
Plugging hard plastic headphones, like AirPods®, into your ear might not be terrible in the short term, but falling asleep with them on could add discomfort. Additionally, in-ear headphones can trap moisture in your ear canal, especially if you go to bed right after a shower. This can cause bacteria to grow and lead to outer ear infections for long periods of time. You can also accumulate too much earwax if you leave the earphones on for too long.
Over-ear headphones offer more comfort, but make sure there are no cords
The last thing you want to do while you sleep is get tangled up in cords or even accidentally push that volume level too high. Overall, you’ll want wireless on-ear headphones, which can provide more comfort because they don’t block your ear canal. There are even headbands that contain headphones, which wrap around your head for added comfort.
If you can, use an external speaker instead
Some of us may not have this next option if we share our living spaces with a partner or family members. But if you are able, using an external speaker is ideal as it takes the strain off your ears. Additionally, you can set timers for certain devices to turn off after a certain amount of time. This way your listening is limited to those precious minutes just before you fall into a deep sleep.
Side effects to watch out for
Some side effects of wearing headphones can include damage to your outer and inner ear, including hearing loss.
You have glands in your outer ear canal that secrete wax to keep your ears moist so they don’t get itchy or dry. It also prevents debris from falling into your ear and reaching your eardrum. But when you push things into your ear, like cotton swabs or earbuds, you can actually push that wax further and compact it. If this happens, you may experience ringing in your ears, mild hearing loss, or feel like your ear canal is blocked.
“In some cases, you may need to have this earwax removed by a doctor,” notes Dr. Pavlovich Ruff.
When water gets trapped in your ear canal, bacteria can grow over time, leading to an infection commonly called “swimmer’s ear.” This can happen if you swim regularly, of course, but it can also happen if you trap moisture in your ear for long periods of time by wearing in-ear headphones or earplugs. If you have swimmer’s ear, your ear may appear red, itchy, and painful. In some cases, you may have pus draining from your ear and your hearing may sound a bit muffled. In these situations, it’s important to keep your ear canal dry and see an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor who can provide you with ear drops to help treat the infection.
If your headphones don’t fit properly, you can damage the skin in your ear canal over time, which could lead to necrosis. This condition occurs when there is too little blood flow following an injury or trauma, so your skin cells die, leaving behind lesions or black and brown tissue.
“If you feel pressure, pain, or fullness in your ear, it could be a sign that your earplug or earbud isn’t right for you,” says Dr. Pavlovich Ruff. “They can make custom sleeves for the headphones to make them more comfortable, but if you’re a side sleeper, they might not be comfortable enough.”
Should you sleep with headphones on?
If you’re ready to prepare for your next sleep cycle, you can only sleep with headphones on if you’re ready to double over-ear headphones and turn down the volume when you’re wearing them. “I would be careful about how big your volume is and how it fits,” advises Dr. Pavlovich Ruff. “I don’t normally recommend wearing headphones in bed, but if you have over-ear headphones or the headband style, these are better for you than the in-ear styles. Using a top external speaker would be preferable.