Sorting out problem ear wax is not really the most glamorous part of being a doctor but it’s something I see almost daily. Patients usually notice they can’t hear so well but they can also suffer tinnitus, terrible itching and even balance problems.
Although it’s simple enough to solve, so many people get it wrong, particularly with the dreaded cotton buds. NHS watchdog the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) last week issued guidance to GPs on how to tackle ear wax – and made a point of advising patients not to use buds.
In my experience, people will do it whatever we say – until they end up doing damage. Here’s what you need to know about this common but much misunderstood matter…
While unsightly, ear wax has a useful function in keeping the ear canals clean and free from infection, as well as waterproofing
Q. I’ve always used cotton buds, and never had problems. The tip of a flannel just doesn’t cut it. Are you seriously expecting me to stop?
A. Yes. Cotton buds, ear plugs and even hearing aids can jam in and clog wax, drying it out and solidifying it so that it can’t move. Since cotton buds are not essential, it is best to avoid using them.
There is also a small risk of ear drum perforation if you go too far, or damage to the wall of the ear canal. The wax does not need to be dug out: it naturally travels along the ear canal and will remove itself.
I don’t want to be that person with yellow wax visible inside their ear. What should I do instead?
While unsightly, ear wax has a useful function in keeping the ear canals clean and free from infection, as well as waterproofing.
Sit back and let the wax clear itself. It is fine to remove wax once it is visible at the end of the ear canal. It is the rummaging around inside that is the problem. Once the wax is visible, it can be wiped away with a bud, but don’t go inside the ear.
Q. When my ears have been blocked before, the nurse syringes them – it’s miraculous. But is this off-limits too?
A. There has really just been a change in terminology as the technique for ear syringing has changed slightly, so …….