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Are You Cleaning Your Ears Correctly?

By Ilaaf Darrat, M.D.
Everyone has an opinion on what's right when it comes to cleaning your ears.

It can seem like nearly everyone has an opinion on what’s right when it comes to cleaning your ears. Q-tips are bad, but “baby” Q-tips are OK. Some swear by cleaning your ears after every shower, while others maybe do it once a week – if at all.

As a pediatric ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist, I’ve heard it all before and have seen firsthand what can happen when misinformation about ear cleaning safety spreads. So, what’s the truth? Here are two key facts when it comes to how to properly care for your own or your child’s ears:

Fact #1: You don’t need to clean your ears.
Yes, you read that right.

Wax development is a normal process, and it’s there to protect the ears. For the majority of people, the wax also naturally works its way out of the ears, so there really isn’t a need to manually clean them. Our ears basically clean themselves.

If you see wax coming out of your ears or your child’s ears, wipe the wax away with a wet wash cloth. There’s no need to go further into the ear to remove wax.

Fact #2: Q-tips and other cotton swabs can be extremely dangerous.
The Q-tip itself is the same size as the entrance into the ear canal, so when you use a Q-tip you are actually pushing the wax further in. Of course, you will usually see some wax on the Q-tip, but most of it is getting pushed further into the canal.

Q-tips can also cause serious — and sometimes permanent — damage when forced through this opening, including hearing loss. Other possible harmful effects can include vertigo or dizziness, breaking the bones in your ear if the swab is pushed through the ear drum, and scratching the inside of the ear, which can lead to infection. The cotton part of the swab can even come off and get stuck in the ear canal.

Any minor satisfaction you may feel from cleaning your ears is not worth taking the risk of these injuries. Right on the Q-tip box, it specifically says they aren’t meant to be used in ears.

What to do if you feel you need to clean your ears:
If your ears are plugged or you feel you must clean them, I’d recommend these safe options for removing excess wax:

  • Create a mixture of half hydrogen peroxide and half water and insert a few drops into your ears when they feel plugged to loosen up any wax buildup.
  • Use a dampened washcloth after a shower to wipe away any wax that is visible in your ear.
  • If you find your ears are still plugged, make an appointment with an ENT who can use special medical tools designed to remove ear wax safely.

Some people have more wax production than others, so if you feel like your ears are clogged up or your child has excessive ear wax, the best thing to do is talk with your doctor.

The bottom line is that I always caution my patients to never put foreign objects into their ears to remove wax. This includes candling, which involves inserting a lit, hollow candle into your ear to suction wax out. This process is ineffective and dangerous, and can lead to serious injury like burns.

Ilaaf Darrat, M.D.

Dr. Ilaaf Darrat is a pediatric otolaryngologist (ENT) who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Fairlane in Dearborn, and at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and West Bloomfield.

To make an appointment with a physician, call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936) or visit henryford.com.

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