Michael J. Ruckenstein M.D., M.Sc., is professor, vice chairman, and residency program director in the Department of Otorhinolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery at University of Pennsylvania Health System
Ears naturally clean themselves, extruding ear wax. The best way to clean your ear is to wipe the ear with your towel after a shower. In a small minority of people, the ear's self-cleaning mechanism is defective and the wax requires manual removal.
Cotton swabs do more harm than good when attempting to clean out ear wax. Because they are the same diameter as the ear canal, they push wax deeper into the canal. This can make it more difficult and painful to remove later on. A few drops of hydrogen peroxide in the ear may bubble out the ear wax. Mineral oil or baby oil will soften the wax and may allow it to come out on its own.
Ear candling should be avoided at all costs. It does not remove any wax, but tricks the patient into believing wax is flowing from the ear. In fact, all they are seeing is candle wax. Not only does it not work, but candling puts the patient at risk for severe burns of the ear from the hot candle wax.
Physicians or their assistants can wash out an ear to clean out the wax. Otolaryngologists (ear nose and throat specialists) might also employ small curettes and suctions to clean the ear.
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