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What is ear irrigation?
Ear irrigation is a routine procedure used to remove excess earwax, or cerumen, and foreign materials from the ear.
The ear naturally secretes wax to protect and lubricate the ear as well as to keep debris out and hinder 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.
The ear, especially the canal and eardrum, is very sensitive. Earwax buildup can cause damage to these structures over time. This can affect your hearing. Removing excess earwax with ear irrigation is a safe way to minimize the risk of damage to the ear.
Sometimes foreign materials like food, insects, or small stones can get into the ear. In these cases, 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.
Before your doctor performs an ear irrigation, they 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.
Your doctor may diagnose excess earwax 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 their office using a syringe-like tool. This tool will be used 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 wax from 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. The process is as follows:
- 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.
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 a condition that weakens your immune system. You also should not get ear irrigation if you have an active infection in your ear canal. While ear irrigation is a relatively common procedure, there are risks associated with it:
Otitis externa is a common complication. This is inflammation of the ear canal that could be caused by infection. It can be painful. Another potential complication is otitis media, which is inflammation of the middle ear that could also be caused by infection. Ear infections are one of the most common complications of ear irrigations.
Perforated eardrums are another potential complication of ear irrigation. In some cases, ear irrigation will press against the wax and make it more compacted. This makes it harder to remove and may put more pressure on the eardrum, increasing risk of perforation. In some cases, fluid becomes trapped in the ear canal and causes an increase in pressure that can rupture the eardrum.
In rare cases, additional complications can occur. These include:
- vertigo, which is the sensation of the room spinning in circles around you (typically temporary)
- deafness, which can be temporary or permanent
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. Those who use hearing aids are especially prone to having earwax buildup. Additionally, cotton-tipped swabs should not be inserted into the ear canal, as these are known to push wax against the eardrum and ear canal.
Many people experience a number of side effects from ear irrigation. These side effects are not typically as serious as the complications discussed above, but they can be uncomfortable.
Common side effects of ear irrigation include:
- temporary dizziness
- ear canal discomfort or pain
- tinnitus, or ringing in the ears
Side effects are typically short-lasting and go away within a day. If you experience pain or discomfort that gets worse instead of better or have any other symptoms, make an appointment to see your doctor. If you experience severe pain, make an appointment to see them right away in case you have a perforated eardrum or other ear damage.
There are several alternative remedies that can be used for ear irrigation. Don’t try them if you have any of the risk factors discussed above.
Olive oil, baby oil, and mineral oil are all commonly used as an alternative remedy for medical ear irrigation. Put a few drops of oil in the affected ear canal, which will soften the wax. These oils are typically nonirritating. After the oil has soaked for a few minutes, you can lie with the affected ear facedown on a soft cloth to let it drain out.
Salt water can also be used as eardrops to soften and remove earwax. Let the salt water sit in the ear for three to five minutes before placing the ear facedown to let the saline solution drain. Clean the ear and any wax in the outer ear canal with a soft cloth.
Mixtures and solutions
Both hydrogen peroxide and a mixture of vinegar and rubbing alcohol are alternative remedies that can be used to remove earwax. They can soften earwax. They’re generally regarded as safe and effective, as long as the eardrum is fully intact, though some patients may find them irritating.
Keep in mind that this is not a recommended treatment. Ear candling has been used in the past in place of ear irrigation. With this technique, someone inserts a hollow, lit candle into the ear canal. Theoretically, the heat from the flame will create a vacuum seal, causing the earwax to adhere to the candle. It’s not effective, and can result in further injuries, including ear canal obstructions and eardrum perforations. A burn injury is a potential risk as well.