Earwax: the truth
First, I want to debunk a myth. Many people think earwax, the yellow waxy substance that is produced in the ear canal, is a bad thing or gross. This is FALSE! Earwax actually plays a number of very important roles: it protects the ear canal skin, assists in cleaning and lubrication and provides protection from bacteria, fungi, insects and water.
How to clean your ears
The ear is actually self-cleaning and for most people ear canals do not need to be cleaned. The best thing you can do for your ears is to not put anything in them that is smaller than your elbow. Wax is not formed in the deep part of the ear canal, but rather the outer part of the canal near the external opening. If left alone, old earwax naturally migrates out of the ear as a result of jaw movement. Inserting Q-tips, sharp or pointed objects into the ear will only push wax further into the canal and may even cause trauma to the canal wall or the eardrum. So let nature run its course and simply use a washcloth or tissue to wipe the outer ear after you bathe or shower.
Earwax becomes a concern when an impaction or a complete blockage of the ear canal occurs. The symptoms of an impaction may include any of the following:
- A plugged-up sensation or feeling of fullness in the ear
- Changings in hearing sensitivity or hearing impairment
- Ringing in the ear
- Itching, odor or discharge
Preventing wax impaction
If you know your ears produce a lot of earwax, and you have some wax build-up, the following ways may safely prevent a complete impaction from occurring:
- Use wax softening agents: once a week place a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil or commercial ear drops (ex. Debrox, Murine) into the ear canal. This will help soften the earwax and allow it to come out more easily
- Irrigate the ear: the American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery cites irrigation or syringing of the ear as a means to safely clean the ears and help with earwax blockages and build-ups. At-home irrigation kits can be purchased at the drug store but it is very important to follow the directions when using these. For more of a preventative maintenance, a simple and convenient way to irrigate the ear is when you are in the shower. Tilt your head toward warm water, allowing the ear to fill up. Once filled, tip your head over and let the water and earwax drain out. Please note, using a wax-softening agent prior to irrigation may yield the best results. Caution: avoid irrigation if you have a perforated eardrum or a tube in the eardrum.
Another excellent preventative measure is to schedule an appointment for wax removal every 6-12 months with your doctor or trained hearing healthcare professional.
Things you should NEVER do
There are a number of things you should never do to your ears.
- Don’t stick anything in your ear smaller than your elbow.
- No ear candling. Ear candling, also called ear coning or thermal-auricular therapy, is an alternative medicine practice claimed to improve general health and well being by lighting one end of a hollow candle and placing the other end in the ear canal. Research shows that this procedure has no proven benefit in the removal of earwax and that it can actually cause serious injury. Just steer clear of it! To learn more check out this article from the American Academy of Audiology.
Earwax and hearing aids
Hearing aids and earwax do not play well together. If you wear hearing aids, you know exactly what I am talking about. Earwax can clog the microphones or receivers of the hearing aid, which can impact performance and sound quality. It can reduce the effectiveness of the hearing aid by blocking sound and can even cause enough damage to warrant repair. Some users notice an increase in wax production when they begin wearing hearing aids. This is not uncommon.
Hearing aids not only block the normal migration of earwax out of the ear but can also stimulate glands in the ear canal to produce more wax. It is extremely important to properly clean and care for your hearing aids as instructed by your hearing healthcare professional. For some at-home tips, click here. If you actively engage in preventative earwax practices, like using wax-softening agents or performing irrigation, do them at night before bed after you have taken out your hearing aids. In the morning, make sure to wipe the outer ear with a towel or tissue to remove any wax that may have migrated out before putting in your hearing aids
Have you ever had water trapped in your ears after swimming? Most of us have! The natural reaction to dislodge the water is to tilt the head to the side and shake it rigorously or to tug downward on the earlobe while opening and closing the jaw. Though the head shaking and opening/closing of the jaw may go on for some time, it is often successful as evidenced by hearing a pop and feeling the water drain from the ear. However, sometimes the water cannot be freed, and due to the bacterial and fungal organisms in the water, an outer ear infection known as Swimmer’s Ear can occur. The most common signs and symptoms of an infection include itching inside the ear, pain that gets worse when you tug on the earlobe and a plugged-up sensation or feeling of fullness. If you experience any of these symptoms you should see your doctor immediately to obtain proper treatment.
A great way to prevent water from getting trapped in the ear is to make your own eardrops at home using a mixture of half rubbing alcohol and half vinegar. The American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery supports the use of this preventative approach and states that this mixture will help evaporate excess water and keep the ears dry. When using the eardrops please follow these instructions:
- Tilt your head and place five to six drops of the mixture into the ear.
- Pull downward on your earlobe and open and close your jaw; this will help the drops to move further the ear canal.
- Hold your head in the tilted position for at least 30 seconds.
- Turn your head over and allow the drops to pour out of the ear. Make sure to have a towel or tissue on hand.
- Check to see if the ear is still plugged. If so, repeat these steps.
CAUTION: Do not use eardrops if you have a perforated eardrum or a tube in the eardrum.
If you try these steps several times and the water will not come out, see a doctor. Do not allow days to go by without removing water from your ears or you could get an infection.
If water gets trapped in your ear often or you are prone to getting ear infections, consider investing in some custom floatable swim plugs. These protective plugs are specifically fit to your ear to create a watertight seal in the ear canal to keep out water and moisture. Plus, they are available in many fun colors allowing you to not only protect your ears but look good doing it! Swim plugs can be obtained from any hearing healthcare professional.
Unlike the rest of our bodies, the ear is actually pretty easy to maintain and keep in a healthy state. Just keep these tips in mind and you will be in good (ear) shape!