Ear Irrigation

Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on June 18, 2013

What Is Ear Irrigation?

Ear irrigation is a routine procedure used to remove excess earwax, called cerumen, or foreign materials from the ear.

The ear naturally secretes earwax to protect, lubricate, keep debris out, and regulate bacterial growth. Under normal conditions, the body keeps the amount of earwax in the ears under control. Too much earwax or hardened earwax can cause a blockage in the ear, resulting in earaches, ringing in the ears, or temporary hearing loss.

Purpose of Ear Irrigation

The ear, especially the canal and eardrum, are very sensitive. Earwax buildup can cause damage to these structures over time, affecting your hearing. Removing excess earwax is a safe way to minimize the risk of damage to the ear.

In the case of foreign materials in the ear, such as food, insects, or small stones, the goal is to safely and quickly remove the items before they move deeper into the ear or do damage to the delicate canal. Ear irrigation can be effective in removing foreign materials from the ear.

Earwax irrigation can be done by your doctor or at home using an irrigation kit that includes a bulb syringe.

Ear Irrigation Process

Before your doctor performs an ear irrigation, he or she will want to look inside your ear to ensure that your symptoms are the result of excess wax buildup or foreign materials and not something more serious.

The easiest way to diagnose excess earwax is by inserting an instrument called an otoscope into the opening of your ear. The otoscope shines a light into your ear and magnifies the image.

If wax buildup is the issue, your doctor will perform the irrigation in his or her office using a syringe-like tool to insert water or a water and saline mixture into the ear to flush out the wax. You may feel slight discomfort from the water in your ear or from holding your ear in place.

For at-home irrigation, you will need to purchase the items to safely clean your ears. The most common method is to use a dropper to insert baby oil, mineral oil, or specialized medication into the ear to soften the wax.

Put several drops in your ear two to three times daily over a period of a few days. Once the wax is softened, use the syringe filled with water (room temperature or slightly warmer) or a water and saline mixture to flush out the wax.

Risks of Ear Irrigation

Do not undergo ear irrigation (either at-home or at a doctor’s office) if you have a damaged eardrum, tubes in your ears, or disorders that weaken your immune system.

Since earwax buildup can be harmful over time or be the result of other health conditions, see your doctor if your symptoms aren’t improving after at-home care. They may want to try other methods or send you to an ear specialist.

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