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Stop poking around in your fragile ears

While you may think you are removing earwax with an ear bud, a lot of the wax is actually being pushed in further down the ear canal

Image Credit: Supplied
Gulf News

Dubai: Inserting anything smaller than your elbow into your ears carries the risk of causing some damage to your hearing.

The misconception that ears should be cleaned out by inserting ear buds, also known as Q-tips, and cotton buds into the ear is one that is far too common. The most common cause of earwax blockage is at-home removal, Dr Fiona Rennie, consultant family medicine at Valiant Clinic, told Gulf News.

She explained inserting anything smaller than the size of an elbow can cause damage to the fragile lining of the ear canal. “If inserted too far into the canal, it can actually perforate the delicate eardrum,” she explained.

Poking in your ear can also push and pack the wax in further. While you may think you are removing earwax with an ear bud, a lot of the earwax is actually being pushed in further down the ear canal, said Dr Rennie.

“This causes the wax to become impacted at the end of the canal, pressing up against the eardrum and causing hearing problems,” she added.

What many people don’t know is that the ear is self-cleansing and this occurs as a result of a “conveyor belt” process.

Dr Rennie explained that after the wax is produced, it slowly makes its way through the outer ear canal to the opening of the ear. “The process is aided by jaw movement, which assists the natural movement by dislodging debris attached to the walls of the ear canal, increasing the likelihood of its expulsion. The wax then either falls out or is removed when you wash,” she said.

However, with wax being an essential part of the ear, just how much is being produced?

“The ear canal makes earwax all the time and in most people the natural expulsion of wax to the outside ensures that the canal always has just enough wax in it,” Dr Rennie said.

While some people are prone to produce too much earwax, it doesn’t automatically lead to blockage of the ear. However, it can usually mean that they will notice more wax visible at the entrance to the ear canal. The purpose of earwax

“Earwax (cerumen) consists of shed skin cells, hair and the secretions of glands and is produced to protect and moisturise the skin of the ear canal to prevent dry itchy ears,” said Dr Reenie.

Earwax also assist in cleaning and the lubrication of the ear canal, provides protection against bacteria, fungi, insects and water, and acts as a shield between the outside world and the eardrum. “When dust, dirt, and other things enter your ear, the earwax traps them so they can’t travel any further,” added Dr Reenie.

She advised people to use a washcloth to clean only the wax visible at the entrance of the ear canal.

How to remove earwax from your ear

If you want to get rid of earwax, here’s what you need to do: nothing!

Use only a washcloth to clean away the wax visible at the ear canal entrance as it works its way out

Earwax can be removed by a health professional but this is only necessary if there is a problem caused by blockage. Signs of earwax build-up include sudden or partial hearing loss, which is usually temporary; tinnitus, which is a ringing or buzzing in the ear; a feeling of fullness in the ear, and earache

Do you share your headphones? Think again

Dubai: You could be at risk of an ear infection if you share your headphones with others.

Dr Iman Abisourour, consultant internal medicine, at Valiant Clinic, explained that bacteria are naturally present in the ear canal the same way they are present on the skin. “This does not necessarily put someone at risk of an ear infection unless other conditions are present such as broken or macerated skin, a moist environment, the right type of bacteria and a weakened immune system,” she said.

If the combination of the above is not present, the risk of an infection developing in the ear canal is very low.

“Having said that, sharing headsets and ear phones remains an unhygienic practice in the sense that bacteria, viruses and fungi can accumulate and grow on sets that are worn intensively. These microorganisms can then be transmitted to another person’s outer ear if shared,” pointed out Dr Abisourour.

Research has shown that the bacteria and fungi that can be found on the surfaces of other devices inserted into the ears, such as hearing aids, are the type that are widely distributed in the environment, including the air.

Bacteria that typically thrive on skin surfaces such as that of the ear canal are the most commonly recovered, particularly staphylococcal flora, explained Dr Abisourour.

However, in susceptible individuals, even these commonly benign bacteria result in an infection.

“If the right conditions are present, they can lead to an infection of the ear canal, also known as “otitis externa”. In some cases, where a hole in the ear drum is present, the infection can be transmitted to the middle ear, also known as “otitis media”,” she added.

Dr Abisourour advised people to keep their headsets and ear phones for individual use only, recommending they rub them with an alcohol wipe and dry them down if shared with others.

“If headset sharing between people is unavoidable (such as at work), then ideally individual leatherette or foam ear cushions and well as individual microphone covers should be issued to users to be changed every time a new person uses the headset. These pieces should ideally also be replaced at least every six months or sooner if clogged with make-up or otherwise soiled,” she said.