If you’ve ever grabbed a cotton swab to clean your ears, you may assume that you’re practicing good hygiene – after all, you’re cleaning your ears, right? Wrong. While many of us have grown up thinking it’s best to use cotton swabs to get ear wax out of our ears, this method merely pushes the wax deeper into the canal, which causes a blockage. Wax blockage is actually the most common cause of hearing loss, so while it is important to keep your ears clean, it’s just as important to know how and when to clean them properly.
So, when should you clean your ears? Surprisingly, your ear canals should never have to be cleaned. Earwax (also called cerumen) is healthy in normal amounts and acts as a self-cleaning agent with protective and antibacterial properties. It traps dust and dirt particles to keep them from reaching the eardrum, and without its lubricating properties, we’d have incredibly dry, itchy ears. Most of the time, through chewing and jaw opening, a combination of earwax and dead skin cells makes its way from the ear canal to the ear opening on its own, where it usually dries, flakes, and falls out. Sometimes, however, that’s not the case. When enough earwax accumulates, you may experience cerumen impaction.
- Ear ache, fullness in the ear, or a feeling that your ear is plugged
- Ringing, or noises in the ear
- Partial hearing loss (which may require a hearing test)
- Itching, discharge, or odor
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you may be tempted to turn to home remedies such as ear candles, but this is not the safest option, as it can cause injuries such as burns and even obstruction of the ear canal with the candle wax. The safest way to remove the ear wax is by going to a healthcare professional. He or she may prescribe eardrops designed to soften wax, or they may choose to wash or vacuum it out – both methods are fast and relatively painless.