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How to clean your ears

Everyone has earwax. And though you may be obsessed with removing the sticky brown goop from your ear, earwax is actually an important tool for protecting the ear against damage and infections.

“Earwax, or cerumen, is a protective substance that is produced by glands in the outer third of the ear canal,” says Avani Ingley, M.D., an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat physician) at Piedmont. “Earwax acts as a filter between the ear and the outside environment, trapping dust, dirt and other particles so they cannot go deeper into the ear canal.  Earwax also serves to moisturize the skin of the ear canal and has properties that fight infection.”

What happens when too much wax builds up in the ear?

Typically, earwax finds its way out of the ear canal naturally.  It can either fall out or wash away during normal activities.  But in some cases, earwax can completely fill the ear canal, which is called a cerumen impaction.

“A cerumen impaction can cause muffled hearing and ear pressure or pain,” says Dr. Ingley.  “In some cases, excess earwax can cause ringing or buzzing in the ears. This can occur in one or both of the ears.” 

And if water becomes lodged deep into an earwax buildup, then otitis externa, or an outer ear infection can occur. This is also known as Swimmer’s ear.

How to treat an earwax buildup

Most of the time, ears are self-cleaning. But if you feel like you have excess earwax, Dr. Ingley recommends using over-the-counter wax removal kits, mineral oil or hydrogen peroxide to soften your earwax.

“If you have impacted earwax that does not resolve with these methods, then you should seek medical attention,” says Dr. Ingley. “In an ear, nose and throat (ENT)'s office, the physician will examine the ear canal and wax using a microscope.  Earwax can then be removed using small instruments or suction.  Some providers use irrigation as a method of wax removal.”

Tips to maintain healthy ears

Ears usually maintain themselves, but here are a few ways you can protect them from infection:

  • Use a washcloth to wipe and clean the outside of your ears.
  • Never put cotton swabs (Q-tip), hairpins or any small objects into your ears.

“A common mantra in the ENT world is, "Nothing smaller than your elbow should go in your ear," says Dr. Ingley. “These items can result in further impaction of earwax or injury to the ear canal or even the eardrum.”

  • Use earplugs or earbuds judiciously. People who use earbuds or wear hearing aids are more likely to have an earwax buildup.
  • Don’t use ear candling as a method to reduce earwax. It can be dangerous, and it can result in burns to the ear or face.

For more helpful, healthful tips, click here.

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