Ear Wax 101

Why do we have ear wax?

Ear wax comes from the ceruminous glands in the skin that line the ear canal.  This sticky secretion protects the ear canal and the paper‑thin ear drum, which transmits sound waves to the brain, from dirt and germs.  The ear works like a self‑cleaning oven; ear wax and the sloughed cells from the skin inside your ear naturally work their way from the inner ear out onto the external ear.

Should I get rid of it?

By no means. Everyone has ear wax; it’s not a sign of poor hygiene.  Cotton‑tipped swabs only pack ear wax deep down into the ear canal where it is difficult‑and dangerous‑to remove.

My child has drainage from the ear. Is it wax?

Possibly. Some ear wax is yellow‑brown and feels tacky; some ear wax is dry, white and crumbly. Both types usually clear the ear without any special care. A cloudy, yell0w-white ear discharge, on the other hand, can signal an ear infection.  This fluid may be draining through a small hole in the ear drum or from ear tubes placed in a child with a history of chronic ear infections.

Some discharge can also occur if a child sticks an object like a bead or pea or a piece of paper into the ear. These foreign bodies, once infected, cause a foul‑smelling discharge and must be removed by your pediatrician as soon as possible. Fresh bleeding from the ear is bright red; old blood is brown‑black. Any bleeding from inside the ear should be reported to your pediatrician.

How do I clean my child’s ears?

Wipe the outside of the ear with a warm washcloth. Never use cotton‑tipped swabs. Teach your child never to put anything smaller than their elbow in their ear.

Can ear wax affect my child’s hearing?

Ear wax can build up (especially if you use cotton‑tipped swabs) and reduce hearing. You may be able to see a wax plug.  Soften ear wax with a few drops of mineral oil, vegetable oil or commercial ear wax drops twice a day for a few days. Letting your child lie on a heating pad can help soften hard wax. You can also flush the ear with an ear syringe from the pharmacy and water at body‑temperature. Do not use cold water because it stimulates nerves in the ear and causes extreme dizziness. Flush the ear gently until the water comes back clear.  Do not attempt to soften wax or flush your child’s ear if she has ear pain, cold symptoms, ear ventilation tubes, or a history of a hole in the ear drum: Contact your pediatrician instead. You should also contact your pediatrician if hearing loss persists after clearing the wax or you feel that your efforts have been unsuccessful.

About Lisa M. Asta, MD

Lisa M. Asta, M.D. is board-certified by the American Board of Pediatrics and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, for which she is also a Media Representative (she has been interviewed for “Kids Health” on Health Radio, and quoted in Parenting Magazine, USA Today, and the New York Times, among other publications). She is a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco and past pediatric chair at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek. She graduated from Temple University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Asta is also a writer whose fiction has appeared in Inkwell, Philadelphia Stories, Schuylkill, and Zeniada. Her essays have appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Hippocrates, the San Jose Mercury News, and The New Physician Magazine. She is an occasional contributor to KQED public radio’s Perspectives series, and has written articles for Bay Area Parent, Valley Parent, Parents’ Press, and Parents Express, as well as online at WebMD.com, Rx.com, and MyLifePath.com. She wrote a chapter in The Field Guide to the Normal Newborn, ed. Gary Emmet, M.D. BabyCenter.com currently has two how-to videos for parents in production which feature Dr. Asta. For more on Dr. Asta’s writing, visit www.LMAsta.com
This entry was posted in 101, Babies!, DIY, Health Care, Medicine and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Ear Wax 101

  1. Pingback: Unboxing Video: Ear Wax Removal | Casa Verde Pediatrics, Inc. Blog

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