Cleaning Ears without Q-Tips

In yesterday’s blog I touched on a pet peeve of mine, asking people to NOT put Q-tips in their ears. Inevitably, the next question is, “but Doctor, if I can’t use q-tips, how can I clean out my ears?”
The answer is two-fold:
Number One- most ears don’t need to be “cleaned out”.
Number Two- when you do have an ear wax build up, flush them out with a bulb syringe.

Ear canals, like many other parts of our body, are self-cleaning. The ear wax (cerumen) is made up of dead skin cells, hair, and other debris that enters the ear and mixes with fluid produced by glands in the ear canal. The wax is a protective feature, and usually produced and shed in the outer portion of the canal. “Cleaning” the ear canal with various objects typically results in actually pushing the wax further into the canal, eventually packing it up against the ear drum. If wax does indeed build up and block the canal at the base, you can experience a variety of symptoms including muffled or decreased hearing, ringing in your ears, or feeling off-balanced.

The best way to clean out otherwise healthy ears if you have wax build up (assuming you do not have a ruptured ear drum, ear tubes, or other prior ear surgeries) is to flush the ear with luke-warm water. Take care the water is not very hot or cold, or you are likely to experience vertigo and/or nausea. Using a baby’s nasal syringe (the rubber bulb pictured above), fill the syringe with the warm water. Lean over the sink and gently pull your ear out and back, which straightens out the canal. Place the tip barely inside your ear, and squeeze the bulb, flushing your ear. Repeat multiple times (I usually say a maximum of ten times) until you see the wax come out. Afterwards, many doctors recommend placing a few drops of alcohol or a mixture of alcohol and vinegar, which will help to remove any remaining moisture.

Why not use q-tips, bobby pins, or other cleaning devices? Again, two main reasons. First of all, it frequently worsens the issue instead of fixing it. Secondly, we frequently see damage from them, whether it is minor, tiny abrasions in the canal and on the ear drum, or a serious rupture of the ear drum from over-vigorous “cleaning” or an accidental jamming that happened courtesy of a careening toddler or playful pet, a suddenly opened door, or a loud noise that causes the user to jump/startle.

BOTTOM LINE: Save q-tips and bobby pins for makeup application and hair, and keep them OUT of your ear!

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