Cerumen, or earwax, is produced by special glands in the skin lining the outer portion of the ear canal. It has unique properties that promote ear health.
By: MATTHEW T. GILL, M.D. | SUWANEE EAR NOSE & THROAT
It helps to trap foreign debris and transport it away from the eardrum and out of the ear. Earwax also has anti-microbial properties and prevents the skin of the ear canal from becoming too dry.
Is it OK to use Q-tips to clean my ears?
You’ve probably heard it said, “Don’t stick anything in your ear smaller than your elbow.” This is sage advice. Q-tip usage can lead to a myriad of problems. Most commonly, Q-tips push the wax deeper into the ear canal where it can become impacted against the eardrum. Frequent Q-tip use can also cause significant skin irritation leading to chronically “itchy” ears or even ear infections. A worst-case scenario involves someone bumping their arm or falling with a Q-tip in their ear causing a traumatic injury to the eardrum or delicate middle ear bones necessary for hearing.
If I shouldn’t use Q-tips, how do you suggest cleaning my ears?
In most cases it is not necessary to “clean” your ears, as the wax naturally migrates out of the ear. This is due to the way wax is produced in the ear, and is augmented by normal jaw movement which helps to propel wax along the ear canal. Earwax that is visible at the opening of the ear canal can be gently wiped away. That being said, certain individuals may be prone to wax impactions due to frequent use of ear plugs or hearing aids, or due to anatomic considerations (e.g. narrow ear canal or excessive hair that traps wax). In such cases mineral oil, olive oil, or OTC wax softening drops (e.g. Debrox) can be used to soften the wax. Check with a doctor first if you have a history of eardrum perforation or tympanostomy tubes as most wax softening drops are not meant to reach the middle ear. Stubborn wax may require removal by a physician.
Is ear candling safe?
This may sound like a bright idea (no pun intended) but ear candles have been reported to cause serious injuries (e.g. burns and eardrum perforations). They are unlikely to aid in earwax removal and what proponents claim as wax being removed from the ear is probably just wax from the candles themselves. Stay away!
When should someone have their ears cleaned by a physician or other healthcare provider?
If you have tried conservative treatment options such as wax softening drops without relief, it is worth getting your ears checked out. A variety of options are available for safe earwax removal.
When should I see an ENT?
Persistent ear pain, drainage, muffled hearing, or vertigo could be signs of a more serious underlying problem that warrants appropriate evaluation. Otolaryngologists (ear, nose and throat physicians) have extensive training in the diagnosis and management of ear disorders.
Dr. Matthew T. Gill is board certified in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery and has been practicing since 2011. Dr. Gill earned his undergraduate degree from Baylor University where he graduated with distinction from the Honors Program. He received his medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin, where he was honored with the Thomas W. Grossman Award in Otolaryngology. Dr. Gill went on to complete an otolaryngology-head and neck surgery residency at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, Louisiana.