Foreign Objects in the Ear
What Is It?
A foreign object in the ear can be anything in the ear canal (the tube that leads from the eardrum to the outside) that normally would not be there. A person may put something into the ear on purpose (such as a cotton swab), or by accident (for example, a small earring). Children put many different small objects into their own or another child's ears. Sometimes an insect may crawl or fly into the ear. Whether it's the end of a cotton swab or a small toy, often what goes into the ear does not come out easily.
A foreign object in the ear canal usually feels strange or uncomfortable. Hearing in that ear may be affected. There may be pain if the object injures the ear canal or the eardrum, or causes an infection of the outer ear canal (otitis externa). There may be ringing in the ear and, sometimes, an ongoing dry cough. If an insect enters the ear canal, a person may hear buzzing or feel tickling sensations and the insect may sting or bite inside the ear canal.
Your doctor will use a lighted magnifying lens called an otoscope to look inside the ear canal, see the object and also see whether you have an infection or a torn eardrum.
Objects usually have to be removed from the ear. Do not expect them to fall out on their own.
Do not use any objects, such as tissues, cotton swabs or toothpicks, to clean the ear canal. The most common cause of a hole (perforation) in the eardrum is from putting a foreign object into the ear.
Do not try to remove any object yourself unless you can see it clearly from the outside. Small objects sometimes can fall out of the ear canal with the help of gravity if the ear is turned toward the ground. A child may be encouraged to gently shake his or her own head while holding his or her head so the ear faces down. Never shake a child in an effort to dislodge an object from the ear.
You can try to pull out cotton or paper using tweezers or your fingers, but a doctor, who has all the necessary tools, should remove most objects. This is because many injuries from objects in the ear canal happen when a person tries to remove an object without a doctor's help. Sometimes, the doctor can flush out the object with water or use a special hook, if needed. The doctor also can check with a lighted instrument called an otoscope once the object has been removed to be sure everything looks normal again.
If there is an insect in the ear canal, never push your finger into the ear because the insect may sting or bite. Turn the head so the affected ear faces up. The insect may crawl out on its own but if it doesn't, place a few drops of mineral oil into the ear. This will suffocate the insect. Your doctor then can remove the insect by flushing out the ear canal with clean water.
When to Call a Professional
Unless the object is soft and can be removed easily, you should contact your doctor to have it removed.
Most foreign objects in the ear leave no problems after they are removed. Things done at home to try to remove an object from the ear canal (for example, using tweezers or cotton swabs) often end up tearing the eardrum, which is painful and can cause hearing loss. Although the eardrum usually heals on its own within about two months, surgery is sometimes necessary.
American Academy of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery
1650 Diagonal Rd.
Alexandria, VA 22314-2857