How to safely clean out ears at home
The reason we feel tempted to clean our ears is because of a substance called cerumen, commonly called earwax. It’s normal for your body to produce it, and it actually helps protect and lubricate your ears. If you didn’t have earwax, your ears would probably be itchy and dry. Earwax even has antibacterial properties, which means your ears are self-cleaning.
Earwax is like a filter for your ears, keeping out harmful things like dirt and dust, and trapping them so they don’t go deep inside. If it does build up inside your ear canal, especially if it clogs the canal, then you should remove at least some of the wax to prevent your hearing from being impaired.
How to clean out ears safely
Ears are usually self-cleaning and generally don’t need any help as the earwax works its way through the ear canal. When you chew and move your jaw, you help move old earwax out of the ear canal to the ear opening. That’s where it usually dries up and falls out. If you are experiencing a build up of earwax in the ear canal you can start by softening the wax with a wax softener and this should help the wax work itself out of your ear.
How do you remove ear wax at home?
It is safe to use warm water to irrigate the ear, doing this at room temperature is best. Do flush the ear gently, as a forceful flow of water can damage the ear. Don’t stick any objects like a Q-Tip into the ear, this can cause the wax to be pushed further into the ear. Do use ear drops to loosen the wax if this is a common problem.
If you need something more effective to soften the wax and avoid the need to dig deep into the ear canal, you can use some home remedies like baby oil, mineral oil, glycerin, or hydrogen peroxide (see our post "Is it safe to put hydrogen peroxide in your ears"). Using an eyedropper, apply a few drops (5-10) of warm oil or glycerin in the ear canal. This should soften the ear wax and help it work it’s way out naturally or make it easier to flush out.
How do you completely clean your ears?
If your problem isn’t serious, but you do feel like you have too much earwax buildup, you can gently clean the outside of your ears. Just use a washcloth. You also can try putting a few drops of baby oil, hydrogen peroxide, mineral oil, or glycerin in your ear to soften the wax.
A modern approach to earwax removal is to use a digital otoscope with a wax removal attachment. ScopeAround makes a number of devices that are safe to use because you can see inside your ear the entire time you are using the device. You can’t see what you are doing if you poke your ear with a Q-Tip. Digital otoscopes have integrated LED lights to illuminate the ear canal and help the tip of the otoscope avoid your eardrum. Ear wax removal is easy to do because a soft silicone-tipped spoon attaches to the end of the otoscope and that combined with the camera gives you the perfect tool to scrape out pieces of earwax.
How do you clear a blocked ear?
If your ear canal is completely blocked, meaning you can’t look down the canal and see your eardrum, then it might be time to visit a doctor. Your doctor can remove excess wax using a small, curved instrument called a curet or by using suction while inspecting the ear. Your doctor can also flush out the wax with a syringe filled with warm water.
Things to avoid when cleaning your ears
Besides cotton swabs (see "How to get cotton out of your ear") or any other small or pointy objects, don't use ear candles to clean your ears. Studies show they’re not effective and they can even cause injury. These hollow candles are supposed to be inserted into the ear canal and are lit at the exposed end, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found they can cause burns and even pierce the inside of the ear.
When to see a doctor
If too much earwax builds up in your ear canal and starts to cause symptoms or it keeps your doctor from doing a proper ear exam, you might have something called cerumen impaction. This means earwax has completely filled your ear canal.
The symptoms of cerumen impaction are:
- Pain or a feeling of fullness in your ear
- Feeling like your ear is plugged
- Partial loss of hearing, which worsens over time
- Ringing in your ear, known as tinnitus
- Itching, discharge, or a smell coming from your ear
This kind of earwax buildup is rare, but it can happen. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, don’t assume earwax is the problem. Call your doctor. They can examine your ears and figure out the cause.
Ultimately, ears are self-cleaning, and earwax is natural and healthy to have in your ear canal, but if it builds up too much then there are a couple ways to remove it. You can use an earwax softener to soften it and help it work its way out on its own. You can also use a digital otoscope to safely scrape out some of the excess earwax. You should not use a Q-Tip or an ear candle to clean your ears. Finally, if your ear canal becomes impacted you may have to visit your doctor to have your ear cleaned out, although this is rare.
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