We don’t usually pay much attention to our ears unless there’s a problem with them. They don’t usually require much regular maintenance so we’re prone to ignoring their existence as long as we can hear okay and nothing hurts. There are a few things however we should be aware of with respect to cleaning our ears.
Ear wax (cerumen) is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a naturally occurring substance produced by the ear itself. Medical Science doesn’t really know what the purpose of ear wax is but it’s generally believed to be part of the ear’s natural ability for self-cleaning. It may have anti-bacterial properties but it’s not known for certain. Also, among its positive properties is that it’s poisonous to small insects thus preventing them from going deeper into the ear canal and it also acts as a debris trap.
With ear wax some may be good; but more is not better. Excess wax can be a problem and should be removed. Excess wax can plug up the ear, causing mild to profound hearing loss, and a full feeling in the ear. It can also trap bacteria in the ear, leading to infection, which is usually painful or at least itchy. The wax can obscure vision when the doctor looks in your ears, possibly hiding a serious problem.
The regular use of hairspray can potentially cause uncomfortable problems in the ear. Hairspray is sticky and being so close to the ear it can, over time, accumulate in the ear canal causing a blockage of stuck ear wax, hair and debris. It’s a good idea to cover the ear canals with a carefully inserted cotton ball or tissue when using hair spray. If you wear hearing aids keep them away from the hairspray as well.
If you use these to clean the wax out of your ear don't!
People have historically turned to either cotton swabs or other implements to clean their ears, or a procedure called “ear candling”. A cotton swab can be very dangerous if inserted into the ear canal—even more so if you are on blood thinners. Your ear canals are very sensitive. Cotton swabs, even though they feel soft to the touch, are highly abrasive to the ear canal. I have seen many ear canals that are dry and red and even bruised from the use of cotton swabs. In addition to abrasions, cotton swabs can push the wax further into your ear causing impaction. Our ears are far more fragile than most people realize. The eardrum, which is comprised of only three layers of paper thin membrane, can be ruptured easily, causing permanent damage to our hearing. One can easily perforate the eardrum with a cotton swab, hair pins, paper clips, or any other objects one might use to relieve the itch or remove wax. Even your fingernails can scratch the ear canal, causing it to bleed. There is an old adage that says, “Never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear”, and it’s true.
Ear candling proves to have little or no benefit in removing ear wax.
When I have checked ears before and after patients candled their own ears I saw no indication of ear wax actually being removed from the ear canal. After witnessing someone candling a persons ear, the candler showed me the wax that was left at the end of the candle and said it was ear wax. Video-otoscopic exam of the ear canal showed that the same amount of wax was present as prior to candling the ear. I challenged the candler to burn an ear candle in a jar to see if the colored wax still appeared at the end of the candle. As it turned out, the ear candle had the same amount wax at the end of it with out an ear to get the wax from. So, do ear candles really work? I am not convinced. Neither are Matt and Betsy Jabs of diyNatural.com who share their experiences on their blog. Ear candling has some serious risks too: your hair could catch on fire; hot candle wax could drip on your face or in your eye; and you could puncture your eardrum in the process. Another concern I have is that If no hearing care professional has looked into the ear prior to ear candling, how would you know the condition of the ear canal? What if the ear has an infection, or some other physical problem instead of wax? Individuals should have their ears examined by a hearing professional or a physician when there is a decline in hearing. A video-otoscopic ear examination will let you see for yourself whether you have earwax, infection or anything else that may be blocking your hearing.
Here are some safer ways to clean your ears!
Placing a few drops of oil (mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin or MiraCell™) in the ear will help soften the wax. MiraCell™, (labeled as ProHear™) which can be purchased at your local hearing care provider also helps stop itchy ears, and heals the outer layer of skin once it has been damaged by Q-tips and more. MiraCell™ can be used to heal many skin problems on your body. Some use Hydrogen Peroxide or products such as Audiologist's Choice brand ear drops, (carbamide peroxide) for wax removal. These drops are generally followed by a gentle flushing of the ears with water via a bulb syringe. Again, there is a risk of damaging the eardrum if you flush too hard. Tap water may contain bacteria which can cause infection, so using distilled water is best. Be careful: using too much force during the flushing process can result in eardrum perforation. Simply washing out the ear in a warm shower or warmed distilled water is the safest way for you to remove ear wax.
What do I think about the ear wax vacuum as seen on T.V.? I have no personal experiences with these devices. One client bruised his ear canal while using one. The online reviews I read were not that great. Others have said they do not create enough suction to be effective. I probably would not buy one to use for my family's ears.
Call your family physician or an ear specialist, (Otologist or Otolaryngologist) to have your ears cleaned. If you do not feel confident enough to clean your own ears, if you have a history of perforated eardrums, or the wax is so impacted you can't get it out you should have the wax removed professionally. Family physicians usually have someone on staff that can flush your ears. Ear specialists or their assistants will use a small forceps to pull the wax out of the ear canal or a vacuum system to gently suction the wax out.
Obviously many factors can negatively affect our hearing so regular ear cleaning is definitely a wise habit to form which may help avoid unnecessary trips to the doctor. Keep in mind, that ear wax is not the only reason why you may have a hearing loss and if your ears are clean and you still have a hearing loss you should have your hearing tested by your local hearing care provider.
By Susan L. Fenrich, BC-HIS* & President, Welsch Hearing Aid Company, Inc. *Board Certified in Hearing Instrument Sciences | WI-612