University of Iowa Health Science Relations and
Marlan R. Hansen, MD
Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery
First Published: 2000
Last Revised: September 2004
Peer Review Status: Internally Peer Reviewed
The next time you're ready to clean the inside of your ears, think twice before you reach for that cotton swab.
The best way to keep your ears clean and free of wax is to wash the outer part and leave the rest to nature, says Dr. Marlan R. Hansen, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology in the UI Carver College of Medicine.
Your ears are self-cleaning, Hansen notes. Wax usually leaves your ears without any help and does not need to be taken out with an instrument. Cotton swabs, or any other cleaning instrument, can push the wax farther into your ear and may obstruct your ear canal, he explains.
Hair pins are especially dangerous as ear-cleaning instruments, Hansen warns. They can puncture the delicate skin surrounding the ear canal--and may cause an infection, he adds.
Ear wax has a purpose--it helps keep bacteria from infecting your ear canals, Hansen says. If water accidentally gets in behind a large plug of wax in your ear canal and cannot get out, an ear infection can result. This is called swimmer's ear, and involves the outer ear canal, the UI doctor notes. If you have an outer ear infection, you will feel pain when you tug or push on the ear structure. A physician will usually prescribe ear drops for treatment of the infection.
Each of us naturally secretes varying amounts of wax into the ear canal. Sometimes too much is secreted, and the wax blocks the ear canal, making it difficult to hear, Hansen says. If this happens, a physician can remove the excess wax by flushing the ear with warm water or by cleaning it with the aid of a scope.