How to Clean Your Ears Properly: Advice from Your Audiologist

container of q tips and container of cotton balls on a counter

Your ears are a delicate body organ and not maintaining good hygiene with your ears could lead to damage and hearing loss. However, cleaning your ears improperly can also lead to damage. People commonly turn to cotton swabs in order to clear out their ears from an earwax buildup, but these items aren’t always the best options for taking care of your ears.

How Interior Damage Can Occur

Cotton swabs, also known as Q-Tips, are tiny handheld rods that have both ends covered in small wads of cotton. While you may see these in jars at your doctor’s office or you have them in your medicine cabinet, they can cause severe complications within the ear if you rely on them for cleaning. This, in part, is because too much cleaning removes the earwax that is supposed to help protect your ear.

Earwax is found in the middle ear and ear canal, where it develops to preserve the balance of moisture in the ear. It is also beneficial for trapping dirt and preventing it from reaching the inner ear. Harmful bacteria that could lead to infections is also held hostage by earwax. Your ears will naturally push the wax buildup toward the outer ear where it can be wiped away, making it unnecessary to continually clean them. However, one study found that 68% of those surveyed admitted to using Q-Tips to clean their ears on a regular basis. This can lead to additional problems.

Earwax Impaction

When you use a Q-Tip to clean out the earwax, you run into the danger of pushing the wax further into the ear. If this happens, it makes it harder for the wax to naturally migrate toward the outer ear, causing a thick buildup or impaction. This may lead to an individual experiencing pain in the ear, having a sense of fullness or pressure in the ear, and an inability to hear sounds clearly.

Damage

You also run the risk of causing damage to the sensitive components of your middle ear when you insert a Q-Tip too far into the ear. Any injury to the internal organ of the ear can lead to hearing loss, and one of the most common injuries related to the use of Q-Tips for cleaning is a ruptured eardrum. This is when a hole is created in the tissue that separates the ear canal and the middle ear. You may experience sharp pain when the perforation occurs, drainage or bleeding from the ear, hearing loss, or the sound of ringing in the ear. Though the damage can heal on its own, medical intervention may be necessary.

Infection

Cleaning out too much wax allows harmful bacteria to set up residence in your ear, but the process of cleaning the ear with a cotton swab can actually push the bacteria further into the ear. Bacteria that gets trapped in the middle or inner ear can lead to an infection, a painful condition that can impact hearing, cause drainage, or lead to a fever. Antibiotics are generally needed to treat an ear infection.

Foreign Object Damage

The tip of a cotton swab is fragile, and it possible that pieces of the swab will come off and lodge inside the ear. If this happens, you may experience pain, discomfort, and the feeling of fullness in your ear. Left unaddressed, it could lead to hearing loss. Never try to remove a piece of swab or another foreign object on your own. You could end up causing more damage.

How To Properly Use Q-Tips

Using a Q-Tip to clean out the interior part of your ear is never recommended. In fact, the packaging your cotton swabs may come in will have a warning to keep the product out of your ears. The best way to use a cotton swab for cleaning is to use it on the outer ear to wipe away the wax that has made its way out of the middle ear. You can also use Q-Tips to wipe up residue or water that remains after washing your face, getting out of the shower, or leaving a swimming pool.

How To Clean Your Ears

It is natural to feel the need to clean your ears, especially if there is a feeling of fullness or you are experiencing muffled hearing. Though serious hearing conditions need to be seen by a physician, such as an audiologist or ear, nose, and throat specialist, there are several things you can do to properly and safely clean your ears.

  1. Create a cleaning solution with equal parts of water and hydrogen peroxide. The hydrogen peroxide is able to soften and break down earwax, helping it dissolve and make its way more quickly out of the ear. You may also find a commercially marketed ear drop to use for wax build-up.
  2. Tipping your head to one side, use an ear dropper to let several drops of solution fall into the ear canal. You will want the drops to sit in the ear for several minutes before you raise your head upright.
  3. Using a clean tissue or damp washcloth, wipe away the residue that leaks out of your ear. You can also use a damp washcloth to wipe away any earwax that can be seen within the ear.

How To Get Professional Help

If your ears still seem stopped up or plugged, you will want to make an appointment with a physician or audiologist. Hearing loss or concerns of tinnitus should be addressed by a healthcare professional, and the team at Happy Ears Hearing Center is ready to assist with improving your hearing and restoring your ear health.