The Real Risks of DIY Ear Cleaning
How do you know if hearing loss is affecting your life? The answer isn’t always as obvious as you might think. For many people, hearing loss happens so gradually that they continue to think their hearing is fine, even when it’s not.
Millions of people around the world clean their ears with cotton swabs, cotton buds, and ear candles. These seemingly harmless devices aren’t as harmless as they seem. Most medical professionals, primary care and audiologist alike, will strongly warn you not to use them. From punctured eardrums to super-impacted earwax, medical disasters caused by do-it-yourself (DIY) ear cleaning methods are widespread.
A sharp object vs. a delicate membrane
Our eardrums are extremely delicate and can be ruptured easily just by putting a cotton swab in our ears — even with the lightest touch. While punctured eardrums can heal, it is not a pleasant experience and often very painful. And sometimes, it can lead to conductive hearing loss, which usually involves a reduction in sound level or the inability to hear faint sounds at all. Also, if you’ve ever used a cotton swab to clean your ears, you’ve most likely pushed much of the earwax back into your ear canal, and getting that out requires help from a medical professional.
Actually, earwax can be a good thing
That’s right, the canals in our ears have specialized cells that produce “cerumen” (aka earwax), which serves as protection for our ears, keeping dirt, dust, and water out of unsafe places. Cleaning out our ears completely means less protection and may cause dry skin that can lead to serious ear infections. And while some people accumulate more wax than others, using a cotton swab to rid yourself of excess wax will likely cause more harm than good.
How to clean your ears safely
A good cleaning to the outer ear every now and then has its benefits. A safe, at-home treatment for earwax blockage, as recommended by the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, is to try placing a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, or commercial drops in your ear. This alternative is a safe way to achieve relief, and can also aid in the removal of wax.1
However, in most cases, the ear canal does not need to be cleaned. A wet washcloth, hot showers, or even washing our hair lets enough water into our ears to loosen any excess earwax, and the skin inside our ear canal grows in an outward spiral formation which allows our earwax to come out easily. Most of the time, earwax loosens enough to fall out on its own in our sleep. The truth is, nothing should be put inside your ears for self-cleaning.
A serious cleaning requires professional skills
But for those people who do have heavy wax buildup or need a serious ear cleaning, the safest way to ensure your ears are at their cleanest is to consult a hearing care professional or other physician. Using an otoscope, a lighted device that assists in looking deeply into your ear canal, these specialists can assess your situation and determine the best course of action for your hearing health. Most often, your doctor can easily remove wax in a quick, effective, and pain-free manner.
Do you have concerns about your earwax buildup? Come in for a hearing checkup. We can inspect your ears, evaluate your hearing, and provide further treatment, if necessary.
- American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery website: Experts Update Best Practices for Diagnosis and Treatment of Earwax (Cerumen Impaction) Important Patient Education on Healthy Ear Care, January 3, 2017.