By Meredith Sheldon
Some people use their car keys. Others use the end of a ballpoint pen, bobby pins or even a long pinky nail. Perhaps worst of all was the woman who used a metal spoon that had been passed down in her family for three generations just to clean the gooey wax out of her ear.
Earwax, according to Dr. Jeremy Melker, a private practice ENT doctor with Gainesville ENT and Allergy Associates, is a normal, anti-fungal protection barrier produced in ears. Yet, people try to clean and eliminate this sticky substance using foreign objects like cotton swabs, which end up doing more harm than good.
“The old saying is don’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear,” said Dr. Melker. “I’m progressive, so in 2017, I’ll let you use your fingertip on a washcloth.” Besides a fingertip, Dr. Melker recommends that adults and kids use droplets of inexpensive mineral oil two to three times a week to eliminate excess wax. He said this is a safe and effective practice so long as the adult or child does not have any tubes or holes already in their ears.
Fishing for wax in your ears with cotton swabs can put you at risk for two things: chronic itching and ear damage. Cotton curettes can break down the protective barrier and even cause hearing loss. “I’ve had several patients who hit their ear drum with Q-tips and knocked their bones out of hearing alignment and require surgery,” he said. “Others poked holes or lose the head in there and can get an infection.”
Besides cotton swabs, ear candling is another dangerous method of removing wax. People place a candle in their ear while lying on their side. The burning of the candle is thought to soften and eliminate earwax. The practice can damage the eardrum and it can burn the ear and the person. “I have no idea where the practice began,” Dr. Melker said. “But I know where it ends, and that is usually my office.”
An increase in thicker earwax comes with an increase in age, said Dr. Melker, so adults often have more problems with wax buildup than kids. However, trying to clean out wax in kids’ ears is where problems usually start. He said wax is a healthy substance and does not need to be cleaned out religiously. He recommends mineral oil for people who have an uncomfortable amount of wax buildup.
“A lot of it comes from when parents come in with good intentions that actually make it worse,” he said. “Some parents get anxious about seeing the wax in their kids’ ears, and we routinely see problems from those do-it-yourself sort of kits.”
If you experience discomfort from wax buildup, Dr. Melker recommended scheduling a visit with a local ENT doctor for proper treatment and cleaning. “It has to be done with great care and it can be very uncomfortable. I have patients who have literally had 50 years of wax crammed in there,” he said. “As an ENT, it is easier to clean it with the specialized equipment that we have.”