If I can’t use cotton swabs, how am I supposed to clean my ears?
Have you ever heard someone say, “Don’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear”? That suggestion is fun to visualize, but it is also great advice. Humans and ear wax, also called cerumen (suh-room-in), have been around much longer than cotton swabs and, miraculously, we have managed to become the dominant species on this planet without using cotton swabs in our ears!
Nothing fills audiologists’ minds with more dread than a patient saying they cleaned out their own ears before coming to see us. Ear canals are notoriously curvy, so pushing a straight stick with cotton on the end of it into your ear canal usually pushes wax further into your ear. Our ears do a great job of self-cleaning… if we leave them alone. The natural process moves earwax outward where water from bathing dissolves and washes it away.
What many folks don’t know about cerumen is that it serves several protective purposes. Cerumen helps maintain a healthy pH level to prevent external ear infection, it keeps ear canals from becoming dry and itchy, and can even prevent creepy crawlies from going deep into our ear canals.
The trouble comes when we fight the natural process by putting foreign objects into our ears, such as cotton swabs, keys, or bobby pins. Of course, another of those foreign objects is hearing aids, the dilemma facing most of our patients. If you wear hearing aids, you should diligently clean the tips or domes that go into your ears so you don’t put yesterday’s earwax in today’s ears. This is often enough to prevent buildup. However, your audiologist should regularly check your ears to ensure there is not a blockage.
How will you know if your ear is blocked with wax?
Many patients come to me without realizing their ears are blocked because the buildup is very slow and they may already have hearing loss. One way to do a self-check is to cup your hand over your ear and listen for a change in environmental sounds. If the sounds don’t change, it’s possible your ear is blocked. Some people can feel the wax plug when they open and close their mouth, or their ear canals feel itchy. If you have either of these symptoms, schedule a visit with your doctor or audiologist so they can examine your ears.
How should I clean my ears?
I caution against frequent flushing, or irrigation, because it washes away cerumen and we lose its protective benefits. A relatable example would be swimmer’s ear. Frequent swimming is similar to frequent irrigation. The lack of protective ear wax plus a warm, moist environment is the perfect breeding ground for irritation and infection.
Your audiologist has special training and tools to safely remove cerumen and can identify anything suspicious, such as a foreign body or medical issue. If your ears have excessive buildup, your audiologist may suggest using ear drops to keep the cerumen soft and easy to remove. However, it is suggested that you consult your audiologist or physician before using ear drops. Instilling ear drops or flushing your ears with water can be risky if you do not know the condition of your eardrum.