Sunday, November 1, 2009

Earwax and Elbows

By Shawn Vuong

In this post, Dr. Holm talks about one topic that doctors have been losing ground on for a long time, the Q Tip.  Every physician from the ENT to the family practitioner has seen the damage Q Tips have caused eardrums and ear canals.  They warn their patients to not stick anything into their ears, and to let ear wax come out naturally. I remember when I was in grade school, some health professional came in and told us only to use a wash cloth to clean out our ears and to never use a Q Tip.  Almost 20 years later, I still use them like a bad habit.  

Using Q Tips and Bobby Pins to clean out your ears is a bad habit, although it may seem like you are doing it to keep your ears clean.  In this case, the gross wax that a person is trying to clean out of the ear canal is actually the stuff you want in there for protection.  Dr. Holm explains more about the Q Tip problem, and gives some better solutions to cleaning out one's ears.  


By Richard P. Holm MD

It was 1973, and the Professor advised our Sophomore Med School class that the smallest thing that should ever go into the ear canal is your elbow.  Through 31 years of practice I have seen many injuries to ears resulting mostly from Q Tips and Bobby Pins.  People use these weapons sometimes to scratch an ear itch, but mostly to remove earwax. 

Earwax is an oft-maligned material that has an interesting story.

Recently scientists have discovered genetic differences by the character of earwax.  East Asians and American Indians are more likely to have a dry grey and flaky type of wax, while Africans and Caucasians are more likely to have the moist honey-brown type.  Anthropologists have even used earwax type to track human migratory patterns, and claim the dry type indicates a genetic change, which came as a beneficial reduction in sweating for those living in cold climates.

Also called cerumen, the stuff that comes out of ears is a mixture of oil, sweat, and old sloughed off ear canal skin. As we chew, the jaw movement moves the gooey stuff outward down the canal, dragging with it dirt, dust, and debris.  We know it also provides for lubrication and protection against bacteria and fungus.

With aging, dehydration, or metabolic problems, the earwax can sometimes thicken, stop moving, fill the ear canals, and cause trouble.  In this case one should apply a couple drops of warm olive oil or baby oil to each ear two or three times a week. 

Q-Tips or Bobby Pins should be avoided since they will only pack the wax and potentially perforate the eardrum.  If oil fails to drain the wax plug, a few weeks of drops will at least prepare the wax for removal.  Then a solution of warm (not hot or cold) vinegar-water irrigated by an inexpensive ear syringe purchased at any drugstore should clear the plug.  Failing that, see your doctor.

There’s lots to do besides putting your elbow up there.

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