As a health reporter, every so often I’ll get inspiration from questions in my own life. Or in this case, my coworker’s.
One morning around the start of the US’s first deep freeze of 2018, Quartz at Work reporter Oliver Staley asked me a question. “Hey, why do ear buds fall out when it’s cold?” Intrigued, I asked him to tell me more. He said he usually had this problem while out specifically in freezing temperatures, and specifically with his old Apple headphones—the kind that are directly connected to the phone and made out of the hard, plastic shell. He wasn’t wearing any hat or other head gear, and his ears didn’t hurt in the cold—it was just annoying that his earbuds wouldn’t stay in.
A quick Google search yielded no helpful results. Apple has this informal discussion thread on earbuds falling out in everyday settings, but declined to comment for this story. A very informal poll of other reporters here at Quartz confirmed that this is a Thing that happens. But why?
I posed this question to Alexandra Sanseverino, an emergency physician at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center is Worcester. By the nature of her job, she is used to getting random physiology inquiries.
They’re haven’t been any specific experiments into this line of inquiry, and it’s not a problem written about in medical literature. But Sanseverino had a couple of theories she had workshopped with her physician friends.
“If your cold and your body is trying to conserve heat, your blood vessels may constrict,” she says. It’s the same reasoning behind putting ice on a swollen knee or ankle: cold temperatures close off nearby blood vessels, and blood and other fluid can’t fill up the space, bringing the swelling down. Our ears, particularly the part where you insert earbuds, are made of cartilage which doesn’t have blood vessels. The skin covering the cartilage does, and it may shrink in the cold, making the cavity smaller and pushing the bud out.
It could also be the weather. “We were sort of guessing that the air is dryer in the winter,” she says. Perhaps dryer air leads to less friction between the ear skin and earbud, leading it to slide out.
More commonly, Sanseverino said, people complain about feeling intense pain in their ears when they’re cold, which is understandable when you think about just how poorly insulated these orifices are. They’ve got virtually no fat on them, they’re stuck way on the outer part of our bodies (as opposed to closer to the chest, full of warm, circulating blood), and they’ve got a wonky, layered shape designed to bounce in as much sound as possible. Good in terms of hearing, bad in terms of extra surface area exposed to the cold.
I brought this news back to Oliver and asked him what he thought. He mused that perhaps his blood vessels are super sensitive to cold; his wedding ring tended to fall off when fishing laundry out of cold water in the wash. We considered the case closed.
Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot to do to keep your earbuds in if this happens to you. You could get squishy earbuds that go farther into your ears to mold to your ear canal’s shape. You could earbuds that wrap around your ears, or get headphones that cover the whole outside of them. You could wear a hat or earmuffs over your earbuds (a personal favorite tactic of mine). But physiologically, there’s nothing you can do to change the way your ear skin reacts to the weather.
Consider it inspiration to stay inside instead.