Offered by: John Wilson, B.S., BC-HIS – Blue Ribbon Hearing & Tinnitus Center
About once a week I get a call from someone who is having problems hearing and after a few questions find out that they stopped hearing after trying to clean their ears. Almost every one of these callers either used a cotton swab or some form of oil to try to clean their ears themselves. Sometimes the hearing is just muffled while other times they lose their hearing completely.
Ear wax is a natural substance that nearly everyone produces in their ear canal. It is usually made up of two substances that are secreted in the canal, sebaceous and cerumen, and dead skin. Other materials such a loose hairs and dust or dirt may also be present in ear wax. If everything is working normally the ear is self-cleaning and wax and debris can simply be wiped out of the bowl of the ear.
Ear wax may build up and block the ear canal potentially causing hearing loss, infection, pain, tinnitus and vertigo or balance issues. Build up can be caused by excessively thick or sticky cerumen, small or narrow ear canals, or foreign objects pushing the wax back into the canal causing it to become impacted. To prevent impacted wax, follow this advice which has been around for ages: “Never put anything in your ear smaller than your elbow.”
Professional removal of earwax is typically done by flushing, using physical instruments such as a curette or forceps, or suction. Over-the-counter solutions exist for softening and flushing wax, but should never be used until knowing exactly what is in the canal. Numerous tools and devices exist for self extraction of wax. Every time a new gadget for removing ear wax at home comes out, I get countless comments and questions from my patients. At one point I had a drawer full of worthless devices patients had given me that were purchased from ads they saw online, in magazines, or on television.
Anytime someone finds out what I do they ask about how to clean ears. My response generally goes like this. “Everyone is different. The only way to know what is in the ear canal is to look. Yes, you can potentially clean it yourself depending on the amount, composition, and texture of the wax, and size and shape of the canal. However, you should never put anything in the ear to clean it until you actually know what is in it because ear infections, damage to the tympanic membrane and wax blockage can all have similar symptoms. Putting a foreign object in the canal can push wax in further and if there is a hole in the ear drum, fluids could enter the middle ear causing more severe problems.” In short, before I ever give specific advice about ear cleaning, I look in the ear canal.
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