Live Well
Aug 14th 2018

Dealing With Earwax: A How-to Guide on Cleaning Your Ears

When it comes to personal hygiene, there are things you do daily (like brushing your teeth) and things you might not (like cleaning your belly button). Ear health probably falls into the second category, but lucky for you — that’s not such a bad thing. Where does ear hygiene come in? You might be surprised.

For the most part, the ear cleans itself, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery (AAO). When you clean it too often, intentions good as they may be, it actually prevents earwax from doing its job — and can leave your ears feeling dry, itchy and even stopped-up.

Wait, Earwax Has a Job?

“There’s actually a cycle to earwax,” said Bharat Yarlagadda, MD an otolaryngoloist at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington.

“As it slowly moves through the ear canal when you chew or talk, it coats the inner parts of the ear with special antibacterial protections and lubrication while removing dead skin cells from the body.”

By the end of its long journey, he added, the wax gets dry and falls out of your ear naturally.

But when you clean your ears, it disrupts that natural process, and in some cases can even force the wax further into your ear, causing impaction.

When It’s Time to Clean

Sometimes though, the natural process doesn’t work to fight buildup because some people may just produce too much earwax or have smaller ear canals, says the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). When buildup happens, it can cause:

  • Pain in the ear
  • Hearing difficulties, ringing in the ear
  • Stopped-up ears
  • Coughing
  • Itchy or smelly ears
  • Liquid running out of the ears

If you aren’t experiencing these symptoms, there’s most likely no need to remove normal earwax. If you do, it might be time for a cleaning after all — but it’s important to do earwax buildup removal the right way. Follow these steps to learn what to do and not to do when it comes to keeping your ears clean.

Clean the Outside of Your Ears

“For most people, this step’s enough for good ear hygiene,” Dr. Yarlagadda said. “Take a clean cloth and scrub the outside of your ears just as you would your face. Don’t put the cloth inside of your ears.”

If you have wax buildup, though, continue on to the next steps.

Try Eardrops

A few drops of baby oil, glycerin, mineral oil or eardrops can help loosen blockages for earwax buildup removal, the AAO says. Hydrogen peroxide can also help. You can buy most (if not all) of these things over-the-counter from a drugstore pharmacy.

Ask About Irrigation

If the drops don’t work, irrigation may be worth a try. While irrigation kits are available for at-home use, Dr. Yarlagadda recommends instead that patients come in to have the procedure done by trained staff.

“During irrigation, we’ll flush out wax blockages using water or saline, but before resorting to that as a treatment method, I will examine patients’ ears to make sure there’s not some other underlying problem that’s not blockage-related,” Dr. Yarlagadda said. “That way, we can rule out more serious issues while helping patients get the ear health treatment they need under expert supervision.”

Don’t Use Cotton-Tipped Swabs

The AAO and other major organizations — such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the AARP — have all publicly discouraged the use of them, and so does Dr. Yarlagadda.

“So many people have cotton-tipped swabs in their medicine cabinets because they think they’re helping keep their ears healthy, but they’re actually doing the exact opposite,” Dr. Yarlagadda said. “In reality, you’re pushing the wax further into the ear, which can cause impaction, hearing loss and other damage.”

That rule goes for adults and kids alike, he added. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, about 34 kids visit the ER each day for injuries caused by swabs.

Say No to “Ear Candles”

Just like swabs, the ever-popular “ear candle” movement has also caught the ire of national agencies that have long fought against the trend in the name of public safety.

Basically, the remedy involves lighting one end of a long candlestick soaked in beeswax and letting the wax drip into the ear. Fire dangers aside, the risks can also cause ear blockages or even puncturing of the eardrum.

To settle any dispute, the Food and Drug Administration announced an official warning against the practice in 2010.

Think you might want to talk to a doctor about your ear problems? Find an ear, nose and throat specialist near you.


*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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