“Never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear!” This old wives tale is actually accurate! Cotton swabs are for cleaning belly buttons and applying ointments – not for cleaning ears. Despite what many people think, earwax is healthy and should not be cleaned out of the ear unless it is causing a blockage. And, if it must be cleaned out, a cotton swab should never be used, because it can push the earwax deeper into the ear, causing more problems and pain!
Earwax, or cerumen, is the protective substance that is secreted by the ear. It can appear to be grey, orange, red, or yellow, and usually takes on a waxy or honey-like form or can be dry and flaky. Earwax exists to help clean and lubricate your ears and prevent harmful microbes and water from entering your body through the ear.
The Outer Ear and Canal
The outer ear is the funnel-like part of the ear on the side of the head. The ear canal is shaped somewhat like an hourglass that narrows part way down. The skin of the outer part of the canal has special glands that produce earwax. This wax traps dust, dirt, and bacteria to prevent them from reaching the eardrum. Usually, the wax accumulates, dries out, and then tumbles out of the ear. However, the ear canal may become blocked by wax when attempts to clean the ear push wax deeper into the ear canal. Wax blockage is one of the most common causes of hearing loss.
Should You Clean Your Ears?
Generally speaking, you should not attempt to clean your ears unless an excessive amount of earwax has built up or earwax is causing pain in your ears. Earwax is healthy in normal amounts and serves to coat the skin of the ear canal where it acts as a temporary water repellent. The absence of earwax may result in dry, itchy ears.
Ear canals are usually self-cleaning—that is, there is a slow and orderly migration of ear canal skin from the eardrum to the outer ear. Old earwax is slowly transported from the ear canal to the ear opening where it usually dries, flakes, and falls out.
Under ideal circumstances, you should never have to clean your ears. However, we all know that this isn’t always so. If you want to clean your ears, you can wash the external ear with a cloth over a finger, but do not insert anything into the ear canal.
Most cases of ear wax blockage respond to home treatments that soften the wax. Patients can try placing a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, or commercial drops, such as Debrox®, or Murine® Ear Drops in the ear. These remedies are not as strong as the prescription wax softeners but are effective for many patients. They should not be used if there is a hole in the eardrum. Rarely, people have allergic reactions to commercial preparations.
Detergent drops such as hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide may also aid in the removal of wax. Patients should know that rinsing the ear canal with hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) results in oxygen bubbling off and water being left behind—wet, warm ear canals make good incubators for growth of bacteria. Flushing the ear canal with rubbing alcohol displaces the water and dries the canal skin. If alcohol causes severe pain, it suggests the presence of an eardrum perforation.
When Should I See My Doctor?
If you are uncertain about whether you have a hole (perforation) in your eardrum, consult your physician prior to trying any over-the-counter ear cleaning remedies. Putting eardrops or other products in your ear that has an eardrum perforation may cause an infection or hearing loss. In the event that home treatments are not helpful, your physician may irrigate or flush earwax out.
ENT specialists like the team at Alpine Ear, Nose & Throat tend to remove the wax using a special ear vacuum and a microscope since they are accustomed to performing surgery with these instruments. Furthermore, direct visualization of the eardrum during the process can ensure that no injury to the eardrum occurs.
What are the symptoms of wax buildup?
- Partial hearing loss — may be progressive
- Tinnitus, noises in the ear
- Fullness in the ear or a sensation the ear is plugged
At Alpine ENT, our ear, nose, and throat specialty team is here to do whatever you need to hear clearly for years to come. Contact us to schedule your appointment today!