We all have our ways of making sure our ears feel clean, but it may be worth asking at some point: Is there a better way? A few of the most common cleaning techniques might be doing more harm than good!
What Is Earwax?
Most of the time when we feel the need to clean our ears, it’s earwax giving us that feeling. Earwax, or “cerumen,” is a kind of natural cleaning agent produced by our bodies, and it serves a few functions:
Keeps skin moisturized and protected in the ear canal
Collects bacteria and debris, preventing it from entering the ear
While it’s important that we have some earwax in our ears, we don’t want so much that it causes us problems! Excessive earwax can cause infection and conductive hearing loss, and may mask more serious underlying issues like fluid buildup and eardrum perforations. Fortunately, having excessive earwax is pretty rare.
The Best Cleaning Is No Cleaning!
Under normal circumstances, our ears will naturally remove earwax. When our jaw moves—usually through the actions of chewing or talking—it changes the shape of our ear canals, and that helps break up old earwax and move it to the outside of the canal.
A good rule of thumb is to never put anything smaller than a towel inside your ear. Cleaning the different parts of the outer ears—and behind them, as we’ve all been told as kids—is a good idea, but leave the inside of the ear canal alone. It’s the job of earwax, itself, to keep that clean!
When To Clean
Earwax buildup is a rare problem for most people, but it can happen. When there’s too much earwax inside the ear canal, it can close off the ear canal to sound, creating conductive hearing loss. This is called “impaction,” and requires intervention to clear out. Symptoms of impaction include:
Feeling of “fullness” in the ear
Ringing and/or hearing loss
Odor coming from the ear
Some people are more likely to experience impaction than others. For example, those who wear hearing aids or earplugs throughout the day. Older adults and those with developmental disabilities are also at a higher risk. Still others may have an ear canal shape that makes the natural removal of earwax more difficult.
Ways to Clean
There are a few safe ways to go about cleaning your ears.
Visit Your Doctor or Hearing Care Provider
Doctors and/or hearing care providers can provide safe and guaranteed earwax removal. From a hearing care provider, this service is usually quite inexpensive. Your doctor or hearing care provider may use one of a number of approaches to wax removal, including irrigation, a cerumen spoon, forceps, or a suction device. Your doctor or hearing care provider may also be able to give you advice on home cleaning, if you have recurring issues with earwax impaction.
Ear Drops / Bulb
Ear drops are a solution that is designed to soften earwax and lubricate the ear canal, easing the way for removal. Different brands might contain mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, hydrogen peroxide, peroxide, or saline solution. Usually, ear drops are used in conjunction with an ear bulb. Once the ear drops have worked their way into the earwax (the package will specify this duration), you can use the ear bulb to wash out the wax. While the bulb can be used on its own, it is usually more effective when ear drops are used first.
Irrigation kits rely on the same principles as the drops / bulb approach, but allow you to stream more water into your ear canal. If the bulb doesn’t seem to provide enough water for your needs with a single filling, it may be useful to you to use an irrigation kit.
Methods to Avoid
We’ve all probably heard at this point that cotton swabs should not be used to clean our ears. It’s true! Cotton swabs are just as likely to create impaction as remove wax, and should be avoided.
Ear candles should also be avoided. They are not effective at removing wax, and pose a fire hazard as well as an infection hazard. Some users have also reported having their ear canals chafed or abraded by the ends of the cones.
Cerumen spoons for home use may be right for some people, but consult your doctor or hearing care provider before going this route. There is always a risk, when inserting anything into your ears, of rupturing the eardrum.
If you are in need of a professional ear cleaning, a hearing test, or have other hearing care needs, make an appointment today and take charge of your hearing health!