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Though many of us reach for cotton swabs to remove earwax, the old adage, "Don't put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear," is actually true. "You can use cotton swabs to clean around the [outside folds] of your ears, but you should be very careful not to do what I call the 'search and destroy,' because you can inadvertently push the wax in further or you can damage the eardrum," says J. Randolph Schnitman, MD, a board-certified otolaryngologist (an ear, nose and throat specialist aka an ENT) in Beverly Hills, California. "Wax is produced by the lining of the ear canal and in normal amounts it doesn't cause a problem."
For most people, cleaning your inner ear in the shower should be more than adequate when it comes to removing excess wax. "The best thing is just to let the water go in your ear (make sure the water is warm, as cold and hot water can cause you to have vertigo), and [then tilt your head to the side] and dump it out," says Brett Levine, MD, an ENT in Torrance, California. If earwax build-up is an issue for you, Dr. Levine recommends using an over-the-counter earwax remover that, when applied as directed, will help soften the wax so it washes out easier. You can also try tilting your head to one side and adding a few drops of mineral, baby or olive oil to your ear while in the shower. Wait 1 to 2 seconds for it to dislodge and dissolve the wax, and then tilt your head in the opposite direction, so it can run out of the ear. If neither of these methods work, make an appointment to see a doctor. "Sometimes the wax is just very hard and the drops don’t help make it soft. An ENT doctor can [better] see what he or she is doing [in order to] suction, scoop or grab something that isn't washing out on its own," Dr. Levine says.
Doctors don't exactly know why we have earwax, but it's generally believed to be part of the ear's self-cleaning process. “Whether it helps balance the PH or has antibacterial properties, it's not known for certain. Some people don't make any wax and some people make a lot of wax, and it's not really known why," says Dr. Levine. It does have several practical purposes, however. "We should have some wax because wax is poisonous to [small] bugs…when people used to sleep on the ground or on the floor, bugs couldn't get very far into their ears," explains Sheri Billing, AuD, an otologist in Wheaton, Illinois. Wax also catches dirt and debris, preventing it from entering your inner ear.
You may have learned this one in grade school, but the three bones in your middle ear—the malleus, incus and stapes (aka the hammer, anvil and stirrup)—are the three smallest bones in your body. "They're amplifiers; they serve to translate the energy of sound waves in the air from your eardrum to your inner ear,” which then triggers nerve stimulation to the brain. They also help enhance what’s being heard, Dr. Levine says. Although small, they’re mighty, and damage to them can be quite serious. "They can be dislocated or…break. Or you can have an infection and they erode and disappear," Dr. Levine says. "If they broke, you'd have significant hearing loss, called conductive hearing loss. But they can be repaired with surgery and you can have artificial prosthesis to replace the bone." These bones can also become fixated, Dr. Levine says, which can be caused by scarring from surgery, infection or, most commonly, a disease called otosclerosis. When that happens, surgery can be done "to either remove or replace one of the bones and your hearing can be dramatically improved."
"Ear candling" or "ear coning" is a practice in alternative medicine by which a hollow candle is lit on one end while the other end is placed in the ear in order to remove wax. "When it is subjected to Western evaluation, candling has shown itself to be absolutely ineffective; it doesn't seem to do anything," says Dr. Schnitman. Not only is there zero evidence that it actually works, but it can also be dangerous. According to the American Academy of Audiology, a survey conducted in the United Kingdom notes that otolaryngologists reported treating injuries from ear candling that included burns, ear canal occlusions, eardrum perforations and secondary ear canal infections with temporary hearing loss. In addition, in February 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers against using ear candles due to reported injuries.
Flying may be commonplace these days, but it should be taken seriously—especially when traveling with a head cold. According to Dr. Levine, your Eustachian tubes, which run from the middle of each ear cavity to the back of the throat, act like a pressure-release valve when you experience altitude changes on a plane. If your ears are clear, they can naturally readjust to the pressure, though swallowing or chewing gum usually helps the process along. But when the tubes are full of liquid, which sometimes occurs when you’re congested due to a head cold, they can't release the pressure. If that happens, "you can rupture an ear drum," Dr. Schnitman warns. "It’s the descent, when they pressurize the cabin. It causes the eardrums to implode and pinch inwards so it won't equalize the pressure and you can cause damage to your eardrum." To be safe, Dr. Schnitman recommends speaking with a doctor before you travel if you're stuffy and using a decongestant while on the aircraft. He also recommends a product called EarPlane. "It's a rubber plug that has a pressure filter so if you place it in your ear before the descent it can minimize that pressure."
We're not saying you can actually taste food with your ears, but they do play a role in transmitting taste signals to your brain. Dr. Levine explains that there is a branch of nerves called the chorda tympani that just happens to run through the middle ear as it connects the taste buds on the front of the tongue to the brain. Because of this, if something happens to your ear it can potentially impact your ability to perceive flavor. "Sometimes ear surgery can affect your taste from a complication; or sometimes, an infection in your ear can affect taste," says Dr. Levine.
Aside from making earwax removal more difficult, there’s another reason to avoid sticking things in your ear: your eardrum is extremely fragile. "There are three layers of membrane: there's a lining on the outside, there's a lining on the inside and there's a fibrous layer in the middle," Dr. Levine says. "It is probably as thin as a piece of paper or your fingernail." That's why the eardrum can be damaged so easily. Unfortunately, it also doesn't heal properly if ruptured. "The inner layer [cannot] heal; it becomes thinner and more easily broken," Dr. Levine says. "You can visualize that as a sandwich, it'd be a lot easier to pop a hole through two pieces of bread without the roast beef in there."
While ear pain is often a symptom of an ear infection, sinus infection, TMJ or even earwax blockage, it can also be due to something completely unrelated to your ear. Michael Morris, MD, an ENT in private practice in Rockville, Maryland, and former faculty member at Georgetown University, notes that pain around the ear can be a symptom of a health issue occurring anywhere between the ears and the abdomen. "I've seen a patient who had a kidney tumor with ear pain. You get what's called 'referred pain.'" According to Dr. Morris, this can be caused by issues that affect the vagus nerve, which runs from your brain through your ear and continues down through the nose, throat and into your chest and abdomen. "I would strongly suggest that if someone has ear pain, make certain the doctor looks around for the cause, because he may find it's from elsewhere,” he says.
If you regularly use hairspray, it could cause some uncomfortable problems…in your ears. Dr. Levine explains that, because your ears are so close to your hair, when hairspray is applied, over time it can get into the ear, causing earwax that would naturally fall out to get stuck. Luckily, prevention is easy. Carefully place cotton or tissue in your ears before using hairspray to avoid getting any in the ear. "Everyone using hair products doesn't need to put cotton in their ears, it's an individualized situation," says Dr. Schnitman. "For people who are sensitive or who identify that they might be sensitive to this product, then protecting the ears is what we recommend.”