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While splashing around in the pool during the summer may seem like good, clean fun, the reality is that all of the extra water time that we get during these months can lead to ear problems. It may not shock you to know that ear infections increase in the summertime, especially among kids.
But before you reach for your Q-tips and start cleaning your ears after taking a dip, here is something important to know: Cleaning your ears or your children’s ears can actually be quite risky. More importantly, it’s not even necessary. No, really: Our ears are self-cleaning, meaning that we really shouldn’t be sticking foreign objects in there to “clean” them. Ear wax (or cerumen, which is the medical term) is generally not a problem unless we make it one.
“Cerumen naturally gets extruded out from the ear canal over time, so putting anything in your ear interferes with this natural process,” Dr. Cher (Xue) Zhao, a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist at Mass Eye and Ear, tells the hospital’s blog, Focus. “It migrates from an inside-out direction and on its way out it traps hair, dust and debris.”
In fact, using cotton swabs is not how to clean your ears, according to experts, and will actually increase your chances of getting infections like the dreaded swimmer’s ear. This is because when you push a swab into your ear canal, you’re actually just pushing some bacteria farther into your ear.
Otolaryngologist Dr. Craig Jones tells Cape Cod Healthcare that instead of trying to dry your ears manually with a Q-tip or tissue, it’s better to just let the water drain out on its own.
“There’s a bacteria called pseudomonas, which is a normal bacteria in the ear canal, but if it gets trapped under the skin in the ear canal, it can cause this infection. It’s one of the most painful types of ear infection you can get,” says Jones. “The best way to avoid swimmer’s ear is to let the water in your ears evaporate. Simply tilting your head will help get some of the water out. Avoid using Q-tips to dry out your ear.”
Experts say that cleaning your ears can also become a vicious cycle: Irritated ears will produce more wax, so, ironically, the more you clean inside of your ears, the more wax your ears are going to make.
How To Clean Your Ears
But what can you do if you feel like you have a lot of ear wax? A buildup of ear wax can be uncomfortable, not to mention embarrassing. If you have pressure or pain inside of your ears, or if you are suddenly having trouble hearing, it’s a good idea to see your doctor, as they can use healthier methods to dissolve earwax and clean the ear canal by flushing it. You should also see a doctor if you have persistent ringing in your ears, also known as tinnitus.
If you feel like your ears are plugged up and need some immediate relief, try a product that helps to break down earwax rather than reaching straight for a cotton swab. Products like Debrox Earwax Removal may be safer than traditional ear cleaning, because instead of pushing an object inside of your ear, you simply put a few drops in each ear canal. These drops help to dissolve and release ear wax, helping it drain out easier when you then flush the ear canal with water.
If you really feel it’s important to do something and are wondering how to clean your ears safely at home, the best thing to do is just use a clean, damp washcloth to gently wipe around the outside of the ear canal (as opposed to sticking a cotton swab or rolled-up tissue paper inside).
“If you want to try to remove the wax at home, you can gently clean the outer ear with a damp washcloth and then pat dry with a towel, but never try to clean your ears by sticking anything in the ear canal.” Zhao tells Mass Eye & Ear’s blog, Focus.
What About Ear Candles?
Medical experts caution that you should not try spa services like ear candling, because studies have shown it is not only ineffective at removing earwax, but it can also be downright dangerous. If you have impacted wax in your ear canal or you really feel like you need your ears professionally cleaned, you should go to your doctor and not the spa — even if they have an amazing Groupon deal for ear candling.