Stop Messing With Your Ears

Step away from the cotton swab and stop putting things in your ears. (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s official: It’s time to stop shoving things in your ears. (And that goes for ear candling, too.)

The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS) has updated its best-practice guidelines, which offer “evidence-based recommendations on diagnosis and treatment of earwax,” as well as do’s and don’ts for healthy ear care.

“There is an inclination for people to want to clean their ears because they believe earwax is an indication of uncleanliness,”  Seth R. Schwartz, M.D., chair of the guideline update group, said in a press release. “This misinformation leads to unsafe ear health habits.”

The overall theme: Quit the obsession with cleaning your ears.

“I do agree with these new guidelines, and there is one statement in the press release that I was actually taught by an older doctor that I trained with who said, ‘Don’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear,’” Jennifer Caudle, a family physician and assistant professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, tells Yahoo Beauty. “And I literally say this line to my patients.”

That’s because the small, seemingly harmless objects can cause significant damage. “I know people want to stick things in their ears and they think it’s the right thing to do, but Q-tips and bobby pins can cause holes in the eardrum, irritation in the canal, and can predispose you to getting infections,” she states.

In fact, Caudle stresses that having this gooey substance in your ears is actually a good thing.

“Yes, it looks gross — I get it — but the wax serves as a form of protection,” she says.

Earwax acts as a self-cleaning agent to keep ears healthy, as stated in the press release, and provides a barrier against bacteria, dust, dirt, and bugs. “One of the reasons why people get swimmer’s ear is because the water in the pool washes out the wax and predisposes them to infections,” adds Caudle. “So yes, we need wax.”

She states that in the ideal situation, extra earwax naturally migrates out of the ear canal. However, if the self-cleaning process fails and wax buildup occurs — which may cause ear pain, itching, a feeling of fullness in the ear, ringing in the ears, or temporary hearing loss — Caudle recommends using an over-the-counter earwax removal product (her favorite is Debrox). “This solution softens the wax so it can come out,” she explains.

As a last resort, consult your physician. “As a family doctor, I spend a decent amount of my time cleaning out earwax,” concludes Caudle. “It might have to be manually removed where your doctor can drag it out. But people shouldn’t be afraid of earwax. They are, but they can stop now!”

Below is the updated list of do’s and don’ts from the AAO-HNS:

  • Don’t overclean your ears. Excessive cleaning may irritate the ear canal, cause infection, and even increase the changes of cerumen impaction.
  • Don’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear. Your mother was right! Cotton swabs, hairpins and toothpicks  can all injure your ears and may cause a laceration in the ear canal, a perforation of the eardrum, and/or dislocation of the hearing bones — leading to hearing loss, dizziness, ringing, and other symptoms of ear injury.
  • Don’t use ear candles. There is no evidence that they remove impacted cerumen, and candling can cause serious damage to the ear canal and eardrum.
  • Do seek a medical evaluation if you have symptoms of hearing loss, ear fullness, or ear pain, if you are not certain that they are from cerumen.
  • Do ask your provider about ways that you can treat your cerumen impaction at home. You may have certain medical or ear conditions that may make some options unsafe.
  • Do seek medical attention if you’re experiencing ear pain, drainage, or bleeding. These are not symptoms of cerumen impaction and need to be evaluated.

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