What is Ear Irrigation? (1)
Ear wax is medically termed as cerumen and is produced naturally within the ear for the purpose of lubricating and protecting the ear, to prevent bacterial growth and to prevent any debris from coming inside the ear.(2, 9) Ear irrigation is a simple procedure done in the ear specialist’s office for removing the excess or buildup of cerumen/ earwax or any foreign substance present within the ear. Normally, the human body is able to control the amount of earwax produced in the ears. Excessive earwax or earwax which gets hard causes a blockage in the ear canal producing symptoms like tinnitus, earache and temporary hearing loss.
Why is Ear Irrigation Done?
The human ear, especially the eardrum and ear canal is sensitive and as time goes on, the accumulation of earwax causes damage to these delicate structures. When this happens, your hearing can get affected. Here is when ear irrigation comes into play. Ear irrigation is a safe and simple procedure done for removing the excess earwax and thus reducing any chances of damage or injury to the ear.
Foreign objects can also sometimes get trapped within the ear, such as small stones, insects and food. In such cases, the primary aim is to remove the foreign body quickly and as safely as possible before it gets pushed deeper into the ear and cause more damage. Ear irrigation is effective in removing not only excess earwax, but also any foreign body lodged inside the ear.
Earwax irrigation is best done by an E.N.T. doctor, but can also be done at home using an irrigation kit.
How is Ear Irrigation Done?
Before doing the ear irrigation procedure, the doctor will check the affected ear and assess the symptoms to ensure the cause of the problem is actually the accumulated wax or any foreign body and is not due to anything more serious.
The presence of excess earwax is diagnosed by the doctor with the help of otoscope, which is an instrument inserted into the ear opening and shines a light inside the ear with magnification of the image.(3)
If cerumen buildup is diagnosed, then ear irrigation is done by the doctor using a tool which resembles a syringe. Water or saline mixture is inserted into the ear with this tool to flush out the wax. There may be some discomfort from the water gushing within ear or from holding the ear at one place.
For performing ear irrigation at-home, one needs to purchase the kit to safely extract the excess wax from the ears. The common way to remove wax from the ear at home is with the help of a dropper to insert specialized medication, mineral oil or baby oil into the ear for the purpose of softening the wax for its easy removal. The steps for at home ear irrigation are as follows:
You need to instill several drops of the required fluid into your ear about two to three times in a day for few days. After the wax has softened, take a syringe and fill it with water (either warm or room temperature) or a mixture or saline and water into the ear to flush out the impacted wax.
Long term buildup of earwax is no doubt harmful or in some cases it can occur as a result of other medical conditions. If there is no change in the symptoms after conventional home treatment, then it is best to consult an ear specialist. People who use hearing aids are more susceptible to accumulation of earwax or excess earwax.(7, 8, 9) One must never use cotton-tipped swabs into the ear canal, as there is high risk of pushing the wax farther against the eardrum and into the ear canal.
What are the Risks and Side Effects of Ear Irrigation?(1, 6)
Ear irrigation is contraindicated if the patient is suffering from any disease, which can threaten their immunity; if there is ear infection; or in case of damaged or perforated eardrum; or if there are tubes present in the ears.(1) Ear irrigation is quite a safe and common procedure; however, there are some risks attached to it, such as:
Perforated Eardrum: This is a risk/side effect/complication of ear irrigation. Sometimes, the process of ear irrigation can push the wax further into the ear and make it more difficult to remove. This causes pressure on the eardrum and increases the risk of perforation. Sometimes, fluid can also get trapped within the ear canal and this will lead to increased pressure inside the ear causing rupturing of the eardrum.
Ear Infection: One of the most common complications of ear irrigation is ear infection. Otitis externa is ear canal inflammation resulting from infection and can be quite a painful condition.(4) Otitis media is inflammation of middle ear and can also occur as complication of ear irrigation.(5)
Other Complications of Ear Irrigation: In rare cases, the following complications can occur from ear irrigation:
- Vertigo can occur, which is a sensation of as if the room is spinning in circles around you and this is usually temporary.
- Deafness can occur which can be either permanent or temporary.
Common Side Effects of Ear Irrigation Include: Ringing in the ears (tinnitus); discomfort or pain in the ear and temporary dizziness.
These side effects are temporary and often resolve in a day or two. If the symptoms persist, then seek medical attention immediately. In case of acute ear pain, consult your doctor immediately, as it can be occurring as a result of ruptured eardrum or any other damage to the ear.
Alternative Home Remedies to Ear Irrigation(2)
Natural oils, such as mineral oil, baby oil, olive oil, can be used as used homemade alternative instead of medical ear irrigation. Insert a few drops of any of the above oil into the affected ear canal to soften the wax. Give it a few minutes to let the oil soak in completely. Then lie on your side with the affected ear facing downwards with a soft cloth under your ear to allow the softened earwax to pass out.
Salt water can also be used instead of eardrops to help soften the earwax so it can easily come out. Insert few drops of salt water and allow it to absorb into your ear canal. Then again, lie on your side with the affected ear facing downwards with a soft cloth under your ear to allow the softened earwax along with the saline water to pass out. You should also clean the outer ear of any wax present using a soft gentle cloth.
Other Solutions and Mixtures, such as hydrogen peroxide and a combination of rubbing alcohol and vinegar can also be used for softening and removing the earwax. These are generally considered effective as well as safe, but make sure you have intact eardrum. There are some patients who can find these solutions irritating as well.