LUBBOCK, Texas — Not a fan of germs? Having a harder time hearing? Your ears may be having a rough time and your earbud headphones may be to blame.

Just about anything you put in your ear will increase the levels of bacteria simply by the introduction of a foreign object to your ear. Think of your finger, cotton swab, and anything else you put in your ear. With the right microorganisms, humid and hot environments like the ear, nose and mouth have all the right conditions for a germ fest.

Ew! So gross!

The summer is no help either. During the summer it is hotter and that means you sweat more. Then, start thinking about all the things you touch before you handle your earbuds to put in your ear — toilets, door handles, gas pumps, water fountain, tabletops and shaking hands. Just thinking about it can gross you out.

It has been said that using headphones increases the bacteria levels in your ears over 700 times when used for more than an hour. This shocking statistic came from a study way back in 1992 when experts measured bacteria on 20 headsets. Whether this alarming statistic is true or false is virtually impossible to determine. Too many variables are missing like where are the headphones stored when not used, how much bacteria is in the average person, and how many other people have used the headphones.

This much is more certain. When you put on earbud headphones, you cover your ears from the natural air, which increases production of bacteria.

Here’s what the Dr. ordered:

Dr. Arica Black, an Audiologist and owner of The Hearing Doctor in Lubbock, says that during the summer there is a huge rise in otitis externa, commonly referred to as Swimmer’s Ear.

With hot, moist or wet conditions, it usually develops in ears that are exposed to moisture. People who get it often have been diving or swimming a lot, which can bring the germs directly into the ear canal. Swimmer’s ear often happens during the summer months, when lots of us are enjoying water activities. Wearing your earbuds traps that hot moist air and then the bacteria party begins. Dr. Black says that regularly wiping down your ear buds with alcohol wipes and then letting them dry is a big help. Cleaning them before they go in your ears is always the preferred method.

How to clean those ears:

As for cleaning the ears, Black says that daily showers are the best method. Putting anything in your ear is not a good idea. Cotton swabs, ear candles etc. can remove helpful ear wax that is supposed to be there. Yours ears usually do a good job cleaning themselves and don’t need any extra care until we start meddling. Ironically, ear wax is antibacterial, it is like a filter for your ears, keeping harmful things like dirt and dust, and trapping them so they don’t go deep inside.

Then there is the hearing part. With people wearing their earbud headphones more and more noise induced hearing loss is on the rise. Today, 1 in 5 teens will experience some form of hearing loss—a rate about 30% higher than it was 20 years ago. Many experts believe the escalation is due, in part, to increased use of headphones.

How loud is too loud?

According to Dr. Black, listening through headphones at a high volume for extended periods of time can result in lifelong hearing loss for children and teens and adults.

“We have seen a teen that used earbuds all night listening to music while he slept that has permanent hearing loss,” she cautions. She further mentions that because of the small compact size, people are wearing them for extended periods of time. Then you get into how loud is too loud.

Most MP3 players today can produce sounds up to 120 decibels, equivalent to a sound level at a rock concert. At that level, hearing loss can occur after only about an hour and 15 minutes.

“I stress to my patients and their parents that if you can’t hear anything going on around you when listening to headphones, the decibel level is too high,” she says. Outside, in the gym exercising, around others — people are slowly turning up the sound level and damaging their hearing.

“The type of hearing loss due to headphone use is typically gradual, cumulative and without obvious warning signs,” explains Dr. Black. “A hearing test and a medical examination are the only way to truly diagnose hearing damage.”

Can smart phones limit the volume? Yup, they can.

Dr. Black advises that people should not exceed 60% of maximum volume when listening through headphones. Interesting fact: there is no regulation on volume on headphone earbuds.

A recent study suggested that nearly 50 percent of teens and young adults get exposed to unsafe volume levels from mobile devices. And 40% of that is potentially damaging levels of sound. That’s over 1 billion people at risk, which is why setting a volume limit is probably a good idea.

For parents, you can set limits on the maximum volume on iPhone and Android etc. I mean, your teens will hate you for it, but they’ll also hate tinnitus in their 20s.

Duration of exposure to noise is also a major factor when examining headphones and hearing loss. Experts say as a rule of thumb, you should only use MP3 devices at levels up to 60% of maximum volume for a total of 60 minutes a day.

“The louder the volume, the shorter your duration should be,” says Dr. Black.

For some signs of hearing loss Dr. Black says look for the following:

  • Difficulties following conversations in public places
  • Struggling to hear telephone conversations
  • Needing to turn up the volume on the TV, radio, or computer
  • Asking people to repeat what they say
  • Constant ringing, buzzing, or hissing noises in one or both ears
  • Thinking people are mumbling or whispering