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Should you be cleaning your ears often?

How often should you clean your ears? The simple (albeit surprising) answer is never. According to guidelines from the American Academy of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery Foundation, experts strongly discourage cleaning your ears at home using cotton-tipped swabs. While it may seem counterproductive to everything we think we know about ear health and cleanliness, the bottom line is that it’s unnecessary.

The ear, like many other parts of the body, is self-cleaning. Earwax is produced within the ear canal and naturally works its way from the inside out. Inserting a cotton swab or anything else into the ear canal or eardrum can actually do the opposite of what you’re intending by pushing earwax farther into the canal and causing all sorts of problems.

woman's ear

Harmful effects of ear cleaning

If you clean your ears at home with cotton swabs, you could be putting unnecessary pressure on the inner ear. Eventually, this can cause diminished hearing, ear infections, and inner-ear damage if too much pressure is applied.

According to Cedars-Sinai, in severe cases, the cotton swab “can damage many sensitive structures behind the ear canal and cause complete deafness, prolonged vertigo with nausea and vomiting, loss of taste function, and even facial paralysis.” It may feel strange if you’re used to cleaning your ears regularly to leave them be, but the damage it can cause is real and can be irreversible.

Earwax — which is called “cerumen” — is produced by the body for good reason. For one, ear wax is a natural moisturizer, so it prevents the inside of the ear from becoming too dry. It also acts as a trap of sorts, keeping dirt, bacteria, and debris from reaching deep inside the ear.

The makeup of a person’s earwax varies depending on age, environment, ethnicity, previous ear surgeries or recurrent ear infections, and even your diet, but it is not a reflection of cleanliness. It actually is a sign of healthy ears. Even if there is a lot of wax buildup, “you can have up to 90% of your ear canal blocked and still be able to hear clearly, since you only need a small pinhole for sound to travel through.” But if it bothers you, there are things you can do.

“People think that ear wax is dirty and needs to be cleaned, but ear wax has both anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties,” Dr. Nguyen-Huynh told the Cleveland Clinic.

Safe earwax cleaning

There are safe ways to clean your earwax if you absolutely need to. Your primary care physician can use an ear lavage, which is where warm water is flushed into the ear canal to clear away the earwax gently. This provides a gentle and safe way to effectively clean the ear without causing damage or leaving room for infection.

There are also several at-home earwax products you can buy that use a gentle liquid in a syringe to flush out the ear canal (look for ones that contain hydrogen peroxide). Avoid ear candles, though. Ear candles were once thought of as a safe way to clear earwax, but experts now say there is a concern that they can cause injuries, such as burns or punctured eardrums, so it’s best to consult your doctor before trying any at-home method to be on the safe side.

ear nose throat doctor
Photo by Jakhangir Kumysbekov/Pexels

The bottom line is that it’s best to consult your primary care doctor or ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT) if you are concerned with the amount of wax or wax buildup in your ears, especially if you are experiencing any level of pain. They can decide if it’s a condition worth addressing, a symptom of an underlying condition, or something your body can handle naturally on its own.

Being overly aggressive or using methods like cotton swabs to clear earwax can result in hearing problems or ear canals that can become itchy, painful, or inflamed. What’s more, a clogged ear may have other causes. “It could be a middle ear infection with fluid filling up the space behind the eardrum,” Dr. Nguyen-Huynh said. “Or you could have a viral infection that affects the inner ear. In those cases, a doctor can diagnose and treat you to prevent permanent hearing loss.”

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