Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ear Care 101

Disclaimer: The advice given is not meant to take the place of a physician's care. Nor does the author guarantee the outcome of any prescribed cure. If you experience dizziness, intense pain, swelling, and/or prolonged hearing loss please see a licensed professional as soon as possible. If an infected ear seeps fluid and pain subsides, the ear drum has probably broken and could cause irreparable hearing loss. Seek medical attention immediately. Treatment with antibiotics may prevent this from happening.

My ears have given me trouble since before I can remember. I've had swimmer's ear, bacterial infections, have had my ear drum break from an especially bad infection, and have been fighting psoriasis around the opening of both ears for quite some time.

However, over the years, I have found some tried and true methods for dealing with various ear ailments. Some are from doctors, some from friends, and others I have come up with on my own.
There is also a maintenance regimen given to me by an ear, nose, and throat specialist which has proven especially helpful in avoiding many of the common ear problems.

Ear Problems and Remedies

Wax Plugs
I have had wax build up a few times and my daughter has it on a regular basis. The ear, nose, and throat specialist told me that the skin in the ear grows outward and flakes off, renewing over and over again. When the canal is properly lubricated with wax, it renews itself as the skin grows out. However, there are times when the wax gets stopped or builds up too quickly and creates a hard, dry wax plug.

Usually, you know this has occurred when you can't hear or it sounds like you are under water. If left unattended, an infection may set in behind the plug and create a severe earache. However, I have found a method for safely removing this wax plug which is effective 90% of the time:
  1. Using a dropper (or drip from a teaspoon), put a small amount of tepid (neither cold nor hot) olive oil into the affected hear and stop it with half a cotton ball.
  2. Lie on the opposite side for a half an hour to let the oil soften and loosen the hardened wax.
  3. Do this morning and evening for one week.
  4. For this next step, you will need a bulb ear syringe which may be found at any department store or pharmacy. They look something like this:
  5. Fill both the bathroom sink and a separate bowl on the counter with tepid (not hot, not cold) water.
  6. Place a towel around your shoulders to catch drips.
  7. Lean over the sink with the affected ear over the water.
  8. Put your opposite arm up over the top of your head and pull the top of the affected ear up and back.
  9. With the other hand, dip the tip of the syringe into the water in the bowl on the counter and squeeze and release to fill it.
  10. With the tip of the syringe just inside the opening of the ear, squeeze the syringe sending a spray of water into the ear canal. Use enough force to thoroughly reach into the ear, but not so hard as to cause pain. Try not to let the bulb tip scrape the ear canal.
  11. Let the water and all the gunk drain back into the sink.
  12. Repeat this process until you get as much stuff out as you can. Usually, a big wad of nasty wax will eventually come out.
  13. Use a hair dryer set on low to thoroughly dry the ear canal.
  14. Then, use a q-tip drenched in mineral oil to gently swab the opening of the ear. (Do not insert into the canal.)
If you still cannot hear, repeat the process with the olive oil for another week, and follow up with the syringe again.

You may also try a product called
Debrox after the oil treatment and before the syringe rinse. Debrox contains a peroxide solution which bubbles up and helps loosen the wax.

You must be consistent with this routine for it to work.

Fungus Infection from Excess Moisture
One time, I found black stuff on my q-tip, which really scared me. I thought I was bleeding in the ear. Though it itched, I didn't have any pain or hearing problems. Nonetheless, the doctor prescribed two rounds of antibiotics before sending me to a specialist.

The specialist took a culture and found it to be fungus. (Eeeeuuuuww. Like what grows on the grout when the shower gets grody!) She had me get some over-the-counter, liquid Lotrimin to drip in there for awhile. Sure enough, it worked.

Bacterial Infection from Excess Moisture
Many bacterial infections are caused by too much moisture in the ear. When we go swimming, take a shower, or even when sweat pools in the ear canal, bacteria may take up housekeeping there and create what is commonly referred to as "swimmer's ear." This is an especially painful ear infection which is accompanied by a piercing pain deep inside the ear. An antibiotic is usually prescribed along with Ibuprofen or other analgesic (anti-swelling) medications. Warm, moist heat covering the ear usually helps relieve the pain, but it takes a good three days for the pain to subside even after treatment has begun. A heated rice sock (see The Humble Rice Sock post) works very well for this.

If you wish to avoid antibiotics or cannot afford a physician, you might try using this garlic-infused oil in place of plain oil and use it as in the treatment for a wax plug. Warm 1/4 cup of olive oil and add a peeled, mashed garlic clove. Let steep for several hours or over night and strain through cheese cloth and use as directed above.

Bacterial Infection from a Surface Scratch
One other thing I have done, but which has not been confirmed by a physician, is to swipe a little triple-antibiotic ointment (Neosporin or an off-brand) in my ear if I feel pain coming on from an infection from a surface scratch. It's best not to scratch the ears with a finger nail, but sometimes you just can't help it. I just keep using the triple-antibiotic ointment twice a day until it heals. So far, so good. No guarantees. See disclaimer above.

Healthy Maintenance Routine for Ear Care 

My ear, nose, and throat specialist also instructed me in proper ear care, which has been beneficial in keeping me from having recurring ear problems.
  1. Always wear silicone ear plugs in the shower and when swimming. She said to pull one plug in half, mold each half into a pear shape, then insert them into my ears, small end first. Flatten the large end completely over the ear opening.
  2. After swimming or showering, remove plugs and towel dry the outside and as far into the inside as will comfortably reach.
  3. With the opposite arm over the head, reach over and gently pull the top of the ear up and back to open the ear canal.
  4. Direct a hair dryer set on low-cool into the canal to thoroughly dry it out.
  5. Finish up by swiping an oil-drenched q-tip just inside the ear canal. Do not insert the q-tip into the canal.
Sure enough, I have never had to have another doctor visit over ear troubles since then.

Many different oils may be used to lubricate the canal: mineral oil, sweet oil, baby oil, olive oil, almond oil, or coconut oil. I have heard that coconut oil is especially good for the ears since it has antimicrobial and antiviral properties which may inhibit bacterial growth. However, I have not yet tried it myself.


  • My ear, nose, and throat specialist also warned me against using alcohol or straight peroxide in my ears since these are both drying agents and make the problems worse. Remember, the ear canal is meant to be lubricated with wax.
  • Do not use foam ear plugs when swimming or showering. The foam acts as a sponge to wick water directly into the ear. Use silicone ear plugs instead.
  • Also, prolonged use of ear buds which plug into the ear can cause ear infections and wax build up. Head phones and ear buds which sit outside the ear canal are preferred.
Happy Hearing!