How to Clean Ears Without Damaging ThemPublished On: June 19, 2019
When they were first introduced in 1923, cotton swabs were aimed at the beauty market. The packaging has always warned against sticking them in your ears. It’s 2018 and people are still using them to “clean” their ears.
Most of us have an aversion to ear wax, for obvious reasons. It’s yellow, it’s sticky, and it collects dirt. Sometimes that aversion gets a little out of control.
Our ears are very sensitive to foreign objects and chemicals. There is such thing as cleaning too much, to the point where it affects your hearing.
That leaves us with the issue of how to clean ears safely. We’re not going to tell you to just leave visible ear wax hanging out your ears. Let’s cover the basics so that you can make the best-informed decision.
Why We Need Ear Wax
The need to clean ear wax is a natural instinct. Humans love to groom themselves and get cleaned up. There’s a reason why we spend so much time grooming ourselves and each other. It’s an integral part of psychological and social development.
Ear wax itself is very important to the health of our ears. If your ears were squeaky-clean, free of ear wax, they would be dry, itchy and exposed to infection. Ear wax is an anti-bacterial substance, as well as a physical barrier.
Our ears are constantly producing ear wax so that it pushes any foreign materials out. It moves along the canal thanks to the eating and talking motions of your jaw. As it moves closer to the exit, it dries up and falls out.
Why Swabbing Doesn’t Help
The act of pushing a cotton swab into your ear collects very little wax. Those who are aggressive with the usage of cotton swabs may pull out a good amount of wax. That doesn’t mean they were effectively cleaned.
If you stick a cotton swab in a kid’s ear, chances are good you will see something nasty come out. That’s just because they’re collecting more dirt and debris and it is visibly satisfying to remove it. The act itself pushes ear wax deeper into the canal.
When you swab regularly, you’re pushing more dried ear wax down further. The cotton can’t collect everything. This compacting of ear wax puts you at risk for more serious problems.
Impacted ears are at a higher risk of infection, hearing loss, and rupturing of the eardrum.
How to Clean Ears Properly
The safest method of cleaning ears is surface wiping. Not sticking anything into the ears is ideal. For those who suffer from impaction, a large buildup of wax, you will experience other symptoms besides unsightly wax outside.
Symptoms include throbbing pain, ears feeling warm, poor hearing, feeling of fullness, an almost sweet smell, ringing, and tickling of the ear.
Those who use hearing aids or earplugs may develop wax buildup. Hard ear plugs and invisible hearing aids that fit directly in the ear are also troubling. Babies born with misshapen ear canals can have ear wax issues until adolescence or throughout adulthood.
Ignoring an ear wax blockage is not recommended, even if your hearing isn’t affected. Your symptoms can worsen and the inflammation can start to spread. You shouldn’t wait until you start noticing hearing loss, as you may not be able to recover it.
See your doctor as soon as possible because diagnosis becomes harder the more the ear is impacted.
If you don’t have health insurance and want to safely remove ear wax from your ear, there are a few options. Although, a doctor is going to have access to the safest and most effective methods. Plus, they can keep an eye out for any signs of infection or damage to the canal.
Here is what you can do at home without risking impaction or damage:
A simple wipe with a damp washcloth should take care of any visible ear wax. You can do this while in a hot shower for the best results. Be careful not to get soap or shampoo in your ears.
For those who suffer from compacted ear wax, skip to the next methods, then go back to this one.
The wax that builds up on the outside turns thick and is difficult to push out. At your local pharmacy, you can purchase special eardrops that will soften the wax. There may be a number of over-the-counter options with different solutions.
Some use common household products, like hydrogen peroxide, baby oil, or saline. They are pre-measured and therefore safer than simply pouring your own into your ears at home. Follow the instructions on the package and ask the pharmacist if you have any concerns.
After using an ear wax softener, you can use an irrigation syringe to rinse out the solution. The action of moving warm water through the ear canal should be enough to flush out any loose wax left behind.
Irrigating your ears is not recommended for people who have diabetes or a compromised immune system. The increased risk of infection during the process is not worth experimenting. See your doctor for safer alternatives.
If you don’t see a popular method listed in our alternative home cleaning steps, it’s not safe. This includes the most obvious stuff like bobby pins, microfiber cloths, and cotton swabs. They’re all poor at cleaning and potentially dangerous.
In case you were wondering, people have used bobby pins to clean out their ears. They can do a better job than a wad of cotton getting shoved into your ear, but not by much. The act of pushing anything down your ear like that is asking for (future) trouble.
Our ears are very sensitive to high temperatures. Prolonged exposure can lead to burning or even permanent hearing loss. Using warm oils is a common practice of quickly softening ear wax.
Just take the time to do a skin test by pouring some of the oil on your hand first. The back of the hand or the inside of your wrist will be the best places to test.
This age-old practice may be a foreign concept to some. At some point in human history, people came up with the idea of sticking a candle in their ear to loosen wax. Ear candling is the desperate and primitive attempt at slowly warming the inner ear to soften ear wax.
This is a claim based on bad science and the physical sensation of thermal pressure differences. A “suction” caused by heat concentrated outside the ear. This premise that you would even want to try to suck earwax out your eardrum should be warning enough.
You should never do ear candling, no matter how severe your ear wax issue is. Alternative medicine practices make a killing off of this dangerous practice.
See a Doctor
Simple and sound advice for any unknown health issue: see a doctor. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms we highlighted above, follow-up with a doctor’s visit if they persist. Some of the common symptoms associated with ear wax buildup could also come from other problems.
Earaches, stuffiness, and hearing loss could all come from an infection. Oftentimes, this is accompanied by fluid buildup, an odor, and acute pain. A doctor will need to diagnose your infection and prescribe antibiotics for treatment.
Don’t let an ear infection persist too long before seeing a doctor. Infections are one of the top causes of hearing loss. If ear infections and ear wax buildup are happening more than once a year, you may need to be more proactive.
Regular checkups and ear cleanings are common for infants and younger children, but you may need them too.
Healthy Habits to Protect Your Ears
In between routine examinations, you should be doing what you can to protect your ears. Depending on your lifestyle and environment, you may be at higher risk for infection, earwax compaction, and hearing loss.
Volume and Noise Issues
Listening to music too loud is something parents always warn about. They’re right, of course. Over one billion teens and young adults suffer from hearing loss due to loud music/venues.
Many of us wear earbuds or headphones to deal with long commutes or unwind during the day. Gamers also wear headphones for long periods of time. If you’re going to rely on headphones for your entertainment, watch your volume levels.
This is especially true for earbuds, as they sit closer to the eardrum and create more pressure in the canal. All loud music contributes to hearing loss as we age, of course. It’s more of a matter of mitigating this loss than casting off loud music completely.
If you find yourself constantly turning up the volume with headphones on, consider investing in noise-canceling models. They’re not just for noisy airplane rides or subways. You’ll hear a lot more detail in your music without playing with the equalizer or increasing volume.
The vibrations we perceive as sound begin to irritate the inner ear after long periods of time. That’s why when you step outside a loud club or concert, your ears ring and feel stuffy for a while. It takes time for the ears to readjust.
Ideally, you should be giving your ears breaks in between loud sessions. When you get an intermission between sets, step outside and let your ears rest. If you’re going to back-to-back concerts, it’s okay if they’re at least a full day apart.
It takes about 16 hours for ears to fully recover from inflammation caused by loud noises.
Swimming and Exercise
If you plan on going swimming, be conscious of “swimmer’s ear.” This is a mild infection caused by too much moisture in the ears. It causes redness and radiating warmth from inflammation.
On the other hand, exercise is a great way to protect your ears’ health. Regular exercise helps move fresh blood and oxygen through the body. This keeps all the blood vessels in the ears nice and healthy.
If you’ve ever fallen asleep on your ear wrong and woke up with pain and numbness, that’s from reduced blood flow.
Stress-related Hearing Loss
Stress is often referred to as the silent killer. It influences so much of the body’s functions. Stress and anxiety can even cause tinnitus, both temporarily and permanently.
That high-pitched ringing can happen whenever a highly-stressful event transpires. This is the adrenaline being produced by your brain, which tells the body to increase blood pressure. Normally, this should only occur in the event of a life-or-death situation.
Those who suffer from high levels of anxiety and stress will attest to how difficult it is to live being in a repeated state of pressure. If this pressure caused by stress isn’t addressed, a permanent hearing loss can occur over time.
Hearing Loss and Hearing Aids
Knowing how to clean ears with the proper method can prevent hearing damage. The average person should not be cleaning the inside of their ears all the time. Our ears do a good job at keeping themselves clean, as long as they aren’t obstructed.
For those who do have compacted ear wax and underlying problems, please see a doctor before attempting to clean them. Ignoring the symptoms of infection or exposing ears to loud sounds can lead to hearing loss. Remember, you’re never too young to begin showing signs of hearing loss.
It might feel embarrassing at first, but hearing aids can definitely improve your quality of life. To do your own assessment, look for these nine signs that say you need a hearing aid. Our blog contains more information on hearing aids and education on hearing loss.
It’s time to start listening to the real issues surrounding hearing loss.