Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Wilderness Medicine in the News

Hardly a day goes by without a wilderness medicine story in the news. When I launched the AOL website the other day, here were three of the headlines: "Grizzly Bear Kills Moose in Couple's Driveway," "Doctor Finds Spiders in Boy's Ear," and "Black Death Found in Denver Squirrels." It seems like there's going to be a lot of outdoor news this year.

In future posts, I'll talk about bear avoidance and attacks, and infectious diseases such as plague, but for now, here's what you can do about a bug(s) in your ear:

1. Your primary goal is to get the insect to exit the ear canal before it causes any damage, such as would occur with a bite or sting. Therefore, the risk for a painful injury is obviously greater with an insect like a bee or wasp than with a non-toxic ant or tiny spider (if it's a relatively non-venomous species).
2. Another goal is to try to induce the insect to leave or to subdue it without causing it to struggle, which might cause it to bite or sting, or to move around in a fashion that causes great pain within the highly sensitive ear canal and against the eardrum.
3. A final goal is to do no harm - in other words, to try to not force the insect further into the ear or wedge it in such a fashion that it cannot be removed. Digging around in the ear with a cotton-tipped swab, paper clip, or other object that can gouge the external ear canal is not recommended.
4. An inanimate foreign body (a piece of corn, peanut, foxtail, stone, or the like) can be left in the ear until an ear specialist with special forceps can remove it. If a live creature (cockroach, bee) enters the external ear canal and causes pain that is intolerable, the ear should be filled with 2 to 4% liquid lidocaine (topical anesthetic), which will (slowly) numb the ear and drown the bug at the same time. If lidocaine is not available, mineral oil can be used, with the caution that it will frequently cause the insect to struggle, which may encourage a sting or bite and incredible temporary pain. Once the animal is dead (a few minutes), a gentle attempt should be made with small tweezers to remove it, if you can visualize part of the bug in order to grasp it. Don’t attempt this unless you can see part of the bug, however. Don’t push the bug in farther, or you might rupture the eardrum.
5. If you are going to be sleeping in a situation in which there is a high likelihood of a small crawling critter having access to your ears, then consider wearing earplugs (similar to those worn on airplanes or by hunters to suppress loud noises).

photo courtesy of Associated Press

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.