First and foremost, I cannot stress well enough how important it is to keep your ears clean. A musician friend of mine neglected his ears for a long time, and the waxy buildup rendered one ear completely useless. And until he had both properly cleaned by a doctor, he had no idea how nearly useless his other ear happened to be.

For motivational purposes, let me briefly describe how the doctor properly cleaned his ears. The doctor had an illuminating otoscope, and through the narrow hole of the funnel-shaped portion protruded a narrow metal rod. On the end of the metal rod was a sharp scraping tool. The doctor inserted the scope into an ear and, while peering through it, he scraped away chunks of dense, hardened wax. He periodically pulled the scope back to bring the chunks out and wipe them off his scraping tool. As 2 cubic centimeters of dark waxy matter were removed only millimeters from each of my friend's ear drums, the padded armrest my friend was clinging to was getting the squeezing of a lifetime. Apparently the entire procedure is painful. Not to mention the anguish one suffers when dwelling on the serious consequences upon precious eardrums that could occur if the doctor makes any mistakes.

Although advised not to for several days, until the swelling and irritation on his inner ear had reduced, my friend was given procedures to follow from now on for proper ear cleaning. One should take hydrogen peroxide and dillute it with water, then tilt it into an ear while the head is tilted with an ear syringe. The solution should be kept inside the ear for several minutes, and then flushed out with pure water, again applied with an ear syringe. There will be a funky sizzling sound as the solution sits in place. That's fine. It means it's working. The hydrogen peroxide is dissolving the wax built up inside the ear. You can buy commercial solutions for this, but they tend to be mostly mixtures of oil and hydrogen peroxide. That oil makes them a bit messy, and since hydrogen peroxide costs less than ramen noodles, it makes no sense to pay exorbitant prices for the messy oil products.

Then fluff up a Q-tip and insert it in the ear, mostly to sop up the fluids and dry things out. And twirl it around a little to get any solid matter that still needs to come out.

I also learned that in certain cultures (they have these in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, for example), it's common to find ear cleaning parlors where one pays good money to have a person alternate between blowing puffs of steam into one's ear and scraping wax out with sharp metal tools. I wouldn't go for that, myself, though. Not after what i heard about the treatment from my friend's doctor.

My ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat Doctor) used to clean my ears by running a very thin, but I think pressurized stream of water in, and bouncing it off of the back (ear drum?) where it created suction on the way back out. It was uncomfortable, sometimes a little painful, but certainly tolerable. Much better than having the ear scraped with a metal instrument.

These ear-cleanings were complimentary whenever I went in for a sinus infection. I had a little build-up, but not excessive. I clean my ears by tilting my head when I'm in the shower, running in very warm water, letting it sit there for a minute, then tilting my head the other way.

Here's the short version for you impatient people:

Grab a towel, put it on your bed. Lay your head on it, one ear sticking up into the air. Have someone you trust pour hydrogen peroxide in it (the bottles you buy from the grocery store are already 97% diluted). Put on a 5 minute MP3. You should feel the stuff working (it will be bubbling and uncomfortable as hell); roll your head over, going the direction opposite your face (keep your face in the air or it might get in your eyes - BAD!). Repeat with other ear. Grab a Q-tip and swab.
YAY!

Ear Candling is the process of placing a hollow candle in one's ear and lighting it. The heat from the candle causes a vacuum inside the ear canal that loosens and removes debris (wax buildup). This procedure is becoming quite common among natural healing practicioners, and home ear candle kits can be purchased at many drug stores.

The Hopi Indians practiced ear candling before the coming of the white man. Similar treatments were used in China and Egypt. Indians in South America used a similar procedure with a rolled up piece of paper or bark that was placed in the ear and then set on fire.

Personally, I've never tried ear candling, but I do have several friends who have, and they all reported that the results were impressive. As a matter of fact, all of them were super sensitive to sound for a few hours, having had clogged ear canals for years.

Ear-candling has been demonstrated to be a complete and utter hoax, by CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. The complete article was published in their magazine, "The Skeptical Inquirer." There are absolutely no scientific principles at work, the "vacuum hypothesis" is completely nonsensical when one looks at the physics of the process, which CSICOP demonstrated through a series of tests. The most damning test compared a burnt candle that wasn't even placed into an ear with one that was (guess what, no friggin' difference). The process is simple and useless -- a cone of beeswax is plugged into the ear, and the end is lit. Wax drips down from the wide end into the tapered end, which is similar in appearance but not identical to ear wax. This plug is removed and showed to the victim. They "ooh" and "ahh," foolishly unaware that they are looking at beeswax. Analyses proved that this wax came from the candle and not the ear, as it just doesn't even come close to the consistency of real earwax. This is yet another new-age pseudo-scientific hoax, and this is coming from a fan of Andrew Weil (I'm the fan, not the inventor of ear-candling). Stick with Q-tips and syringes.

If you want to see this for yourself, buy 5,000,000 ear candles, and amaze yourself with the 5,000 tons of "earwax" they produce. Those who insist that they did hear better (generally it's only for a couple hours) probably a)are excercising the power of suggestion on themselves, or b)their ears actually are a little bit "opened up" from having a fat cone shoved in them, and I bet everything seems a little louder after you've had a big candle jammed in your head for however long. Ok, I'll even provide a c)...perhaps the heat indeed does loosen up the wax a bit, but there is no physical way for it to be drawn into the candle. So basically, the wax gets runny and goes deeper into the ear..perhaps.

Don't.

If your ears are working fine, don't clean them. If your ears are not working fine, then see a doctor. Don't poke anything up your ears.

Earwax, or cerumen as the medics call it, is not a waste product like pus or urine, which is best eliminated as soon as possible. Your ears are designed to function best with a coating of wax along the ear canal. The wax and the hairs are designed to exclude dirt, fungus, bacteria and insects from what is actually an orifice, an easy way into your body. The wax is designed to get full of gunk, and be replaced by new wax as it slowly moves outwards. It is not supposed to be entirely removed.

Evolution designed the ear, and did an OK job of it. The ear contains wax, therefore it is meant to contain wax. The earhole is narrow, therefore you're not supposed to poke anything in there any further that you can fit your little finger.

Sticking a foreign object like a metal scraper or an ear bud (a Q-Tip for Americans) into your ear has the following problems:

Firstly if you get to your delicate eardrum, you could damage it. Ouch.

Secondly as the basic principle of using a ramrod to tamp down a cannon shows, poking a blunt object down there is a very bad way of getting stuff out. You are likely to pack the wax up against the eardrum, and it doesn't belong there. It belongs further out - only the first third of the way to the eardrum is lined with wax. Packing wax against the eardrum can lead to muffled hearing, and infections, and you compounding your error by poking around in there again.

Thirdly the skin that generates the wax is delicate - it is easily broken or irritated by your scraping. And when it is, you're going to compound your error by scratching it where it itches.

Fourthly, you could actually remove the wax. If you do this, your body will step up wax production, because it knows that you need the wax, even if you don't want it. A vicious circle ensues.

Treatments

Some people do have excessive production of wax, or the wax is too hard, and will need this treated from time to time. If you go to your doctor, there are two wax-removing treatments that they may decide to use. However if the cause of your discomfort is not wax build-up but a torn eardrum or infection beyond the eardrum, a medic might refuse to syringe, as it could cause further damage. Often they refuse when the ear is blocked simply because they can't be sure what is going on out of sight behind the blockage.

Syringing is a procedure of carefully squirting warm water into the ear canal with a thick-needled syringe. The water flows back out the ear. It softens the wax and washes it out, without scraping at the walls of the ear hole or bursting the eardrum. My experience of syringing is that it sounds very loud as the water washes against the eardrum, but it only slightly uncomfortable (cold water in the ear is apparently very unpleasant). The procedure doesn't take long, but does require someone competent to perform it. Syringing should not be done if there is any suspicion that the eardrum may be damaged or inflamed.

Ear Drops are made from olive oil or a hydrogen peroxide solution in water. Ear drops are poured into the ear, and drained out a few minutes later. The drops will either dissolve part of the wax, or simply soften it to help to come out or aid a later syringing. This takes time, you have to lie on your side with your ear full of fluid, and then drain it out, and do this once or twice daily for several days. But you can do it on your own. Ear drops should also not be used if there is any suspicion that the eardrum may be damaged or inflamed.

Ear candling is pointless, it doesn't do anything.


Sources: Wikipedia, lectures from my GP. I'm not a doctor, but I've been a patient for this.

Thanks to andersa and nasreddin for corrections.

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