Ask A Doctor: How Often Should I Clean My Ears?

Not as often as you thought.

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How often do you clean your ears? If you were to Google “clean your ears”, some of the related questions that come up include “Is it bad to clean your ears?”

We asked Dr Low Wong Kein Christopher, ENT specialist, Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, a few ear-related questions, and found out some things we never knew about.

The ear has a natural “conveyor belt system”

Dr Low says that ear wax helps to protect the external ear canal by preventing excessive drying. It also has lubricating and anti-bacterial properties. Interestingly, you actually don’t have to dig deep to get the gunk out because our ears have a natural self-cleansing mechanism to get rid of the wax. Dr Low calls this “a natural “conveyor belt system’”. He says, “[This] transports dead cells from the deeper to the outer parts of the ear canal. Assisted by jaw movements, ear wax formed will be transported towards the outside and falls out of the ear.”

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While the system is naturally occurring, it might work differently for some people. He says, “Some patients may produce excessive wax or have a deficient self-cleansing mechanism. The wax can then accumulate, which can cause irritation or blockage and hearing loss. For such patients who develop symptoms, some form of active intervention may be necessary to help remove the wax.”

Don’t use cotton buds

By “active intervention”, Dr Low means removal of ear wax. However, he suggests against using cotton buds. “Cotton buds are not only ineffective in removing ear wax, it tends to push the wax deeper into the ear canal and could cause impaction of ear wax.” Impaction refers to the process where ear wax builds up and gets stuck in your ear.

If, like us, you’ve been digging your ears using cotton buds all your life, he suggests consulting a doctor to have your ears checked on whether the impacted ear wax has affected your hearing. “The use of cotton buds may even cause injury to your ear canal,” he added.

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How to clean your ears

Wondering how to clean your ears now that cotton buds have been banned from your ears? Here’s what Dr Low suggests: “If there is no history of a perforated eardrum, the wax can be softened with wax softening solutions bought from the pharmacy. Thereafter, the wax can be flushed out with warm water (body temperature) using a rubber ball syringe. Note that if the water is too cold or too warm, dizziness can result. Flushing should not be too forceful, which can damage the delicate eardrum.”

He added, “Alternatively, ear wax can be easily removed by a doctor. Using specialised instruments, the doctor can effectively remove the ear wax safely.”

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Say no to ear candling

Ear candling might have been all the rage a few years ago, and till today, some places still offer the service. However, Dr Low cautioned against going for the treatment. He says, “Although it can remove pieces of dry loose wax in the ear canal by the suction effect that it creates.”

He shares, “I have had patients who have melted molten candle wax flowing into their ear canals. Besides the possibility of causing damage from the heat, the wax solidifies in the ear canal when it subsequently cools. If the solid wax gets stuck to the eardrum/canal wall, removing it can be difficult, even by the doctor.”

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When to see a doctor

While you don’t have to visit a doctor for a little itch or discomfort from wax accumulation, Dr Low advises monitoring the symptoms for a few days. “Ear infections may present with the same symptoms. One can observe for a few days if such symptoms are mild. But if the symptoms become severe, or if pain, hearing loss and fever start to develop, medical attention is recommended.”

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