Cleaning Your Ears
Ears are designed by nature to be both self-cleaning and self-protecting. In fact, if you use the wrong cleaning methods, you risk causing injury to the ears or even infection.
For the most part, the important things to remember about caring for your ears, or for your children's ears, are what not to do. In particular:
Earwax (also called cerumen) is necessary for the ear's self-cleaning mechanism to work properly. Don't try to remove it unless there is a serious blockage.
Earwax is manufactured by glands in the skin of the outer ear canal, the hole through which sound travels to the eardrum. Earwax serves several important functions. It coats the skin of the ear canal, repelling water and helping to protect it against injury and infection. It also helps to keep the skin inside the ears from getting dry and itchy. In addition, earwax traps dust and germs, keeping them from reaching the eardrum.
Most of the time, earwax falls out on its own, cleaning the ears as it does. As earwax builds up inside the ear, it dries up and moves out of the ear, bringing dust and debris with it. Usually, you don't need to do anything to help this natural process. However, some people need help with wax removal.
This means no cotton swabs, no fingers and certainly no sharp objects, such as bobby pins or paper clips. Inserted objects can injure the delicate skin of the ear canal or puncture (put a hole in) an eardrum.
Some people probe the insides of their ears in an attempt to remove built-up wax. This can be dangerous. It is also unnecessary and can produce the opposite result — rather than removing earwax, a cotton swab or other object often will push wax deeper into the ear canal, toward the eardrum. If enough wax builds up, it can be uncomfortable and may cause short-term hearing loss by blocking the sound coming into the ear. If problems persist, the excess wax may need to be removed by a doctor.
Forcibly removing the ear's protective wax layer, scratching the skin that lines the ear canal or pushing wax deeper into the ear canal can increase your risk of infection. So it is best to leave the inside of your ear alone and not disturb its natural environment.
If the outsides of your ears get dirty, wash your ears carefully using a soft washcloth moistened with soap and water. Do not insert the washcloth, your finger or anything else into the ear canal. If you are washing your baby's ears, use cotton balls dampened with plain water — no soap.
And always pat the ears dry. Be especially careful to dry your ears thoroughly if you swim often, to help prevent a painful infection called swimmer's ear (otitis externa). Some people who have a tendency to develop swimmer's ear may need to use drops that contain alcohol to help dry out the ears. If you have concerns about this condition, discuss them with your doctor.
Removing earwax blockage. In some cases, earwax does need to be removed. Here are the symptoms of excessive wax build-up:
- Partial hearing loss
- Ringing in the ear
- A feeling of fullness in the ear
Ask your doctor for help in removing earwax if you have a hole in your eardrum or if you ever had surgery on your ear. But if you do not have a damaged eardrum and your ears are blocked with wax, you may want to try treating the blockage at home, before you call your doctor. Here is the technique to follow:
A doctor may flush out earwax using water.
Illustration created by InteliHealth designer Kelly Farrington.
- Fill a medicine dropper with any of the following wax-softening substances, available over-the-counter at a drugstore: mineral oil, baby oil, nonprescription earwax-remover liquid or liquid docusate sodium (a stool softener).
- Tilt your head so the ear with the blockage points upward.
- Using the medicine dropper, fill the ear with the wax softener, one drop at a time.
- Keep the ear tilted upward for five minutes. Then place a cloth over the ear and turn that side of the head down, letting the liquid drip out.
- Repeat if necessary, one or two times a day for several days.
If the wax does not come out on its own, see a doctor for help. The doctor may flush out the wax with water or may use a special instrument or a vacuum device to remove the wax.
Both adults and children can get objects stuck in their ears. Adults usually get objects (for example, a small earring) stuck in their ears accidentally. Children, at times curious and mischievous, may put a wide assortment of objects into their own or another child's ears. Whether it's a bean, an eraser or something you can't even imagine, what goes in often doesn't come out easily.
Occasionally, an insect can fly into the ear and get stuck. If there's an insect in your ear, first kill it by filling the canal with mineral oil. Then call your doctor as soon as possible. Do not try to remove the insect (or any other object) yourself.
Only a doctor should remove an object stuck in your ear. Sometimes the doctor can out flush the object with water, but, for most objects, he or she will use a special hook. The doctor has the tools necessary to not only remove things from the ear canal but also to look inside and make sure everything else is normal after the object is removed.
To prevent problems, use caution around your ears. And teach your children never to put anything in their ears (or someone else's ears).
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