What you need to know about foreign objects in the ear
Hearing is one of life’s most wondrous gifts. From listening to your favorite song to hearing your child read aloud from their favorite book, each sound is truly precious.
Unfortunately, your ability to hear is susceptible to damage or impairment. The anatomy of the ear is more complex than you may realize: with a winding maze of tubes and canals, razor-thin bones and innumerable nerves and receptors, a foreign object can wreak havoc if it penetrates the ear canal.
Most adults can effectively communicate their symptoms or circumstances surrounding an ear injury, but children may not be adept at describing ear trauma. What should you do if you suspect an object has entered your infant’s ear? When is a home remedy sufficient?
Foreign objects in the ear are relatively common, but knowing some basic procedures and preventive measures can help you take care of your child before a CareNow Urgent Care visit.
If you think your child is experiencing a medical emergency from having a foreign object in his/her ear, please call 911 or go to your closest emergency room for immediate treatment.
A foreign object in the ear is exactly what it sounds like: a substance that shouldn’t be inside your body is suddenly lost in the complex network of the ear canal. You may feel pain, discomfort or a sense of ringing in your ears.
Recognize the causes and symptoms of common ear injuries with help from the CareNow team.
Adults who have a foreign object in the ear are often victims of circumstances beyond their control, like insects which can enter a person’s ear canal.
Children are much more at risk for unwanted objects entering their ears.
Specific objects that are susceptible to entering the ear canal include:
- Small toys
- Food particles
If you have small children, be particularly aware of these objects in and around your home especially watchful when your child is eating.
As infants develop motor skills, they may be at risk for unknowingly placing foreign objects into their own ears or into the ears of other children. If your infant expresses signs of pain with no discernable signs of damage elsewhere, consider checking their ears.
If you suspect a foreign object is lodged in your ear or the ear of your child, the first step is to perform a visual inspection. Inspect the ear to search for any signs of an object or trauma. If bleeding or discharge is visible, seek medical attention immediately.
Depending on the severity of the ear emergency, follow these first aid steps to attempt to remove a foreign object from the ear:
- Remain calm. Excessive panic and movement may push the object in further and will inhibit your ability to remove the object if it is visible. When dealing with children, prevent them from inserting their fingers back in their ear, as they could unknowingly push the object in deeper.
- If the object is clearly visible, sticking out of the ear and seems easy to remove, gently lift the object out with your hands or a pair of tweezers. Afterward, we still recommend seeking medical help to ensure the object has been completely removed and did not cause any damage.
- If the object is visible but appears to extend deeper into the ear canal, DO NOT attempt to remove the object with tweezers. Removal of the object requires professional medical precision, and you may end up causing more damage by attempting to remove it yourself.
- Try using gravity to allow the object to fall out on its own. Gently tilt the affected ear toward the ground and see if the object will loosen from the canal or outer ear. Never strike the person’s head to force the object out!
- If the object has not been dislodged by this step, locate your nearest CareNow Urgent Care center for medical attention.
Always use your best judgment when assessing these situations. The old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try again,” does NOT apply when it comes to removing foreign objects from the ear.
We do not recommend flushing the object out with water at home, as special medical tools are required to ensure the procedure is safely completed. If you overstep and attempt treatment yourself, you are at risk of permanently damaging tissue or the eardrum.
When in doubt, always seek medical attention from a healthcare professional.
Do not hesitate to seek help if you suspect professional medical intervention may be necessary. Your family physician or CareNow provider can more accurately diagnose the cause and administer the proper removal technique.
Your healthcare provider will have access to tools such as headlamps or otoscopes to better diagnose and treat the removal of an object from the ear.
In the instance of small toys, beads or pebbles being lodged in the ear, you may expect one or more removal techniques to be administered:
- Irrigation with water. Your provider will determine if the foreign object or wax buildup can be removed by administering water pressure to the ear. This is done with a special syringe tool which safely flushes the ear with water. The water pressure may be enough to remove the object without causing damage to the inner ear or eardrum.
- Forceps removal. Your provider has access to medical grasping tools not commonly found in the home. After a visual assessment, your physician will select the correct tool to safely remove the foreign object from the ear.
A healthcare professional will also determine the extent of any damage associated with the object entering or exiting the ear. Preventive measures such as eardrops or bandages may be administered to heal any damages.
Cerumen, more colloquially known as earwax, gets a bad reputation. The soft yellowish wax emanates from the ear canal and is actually a self-cleaning agent. It naturally protects the ear against bacteria and water - so think twice before you remove the wax or swab it away.
In fact, cotton swabs are considered to be a foreign object themselves and should not be placed into the ear or ear canal. Despite their widespread use, using cotton swabs for earwax removal may actually do more harm than good.
Consider the complex structure of the ear. A buildup of wax may appear to be an inconvenience, especially if the blockage causes hearing loss or ringing in the ears. However, if you attempt to remove the wax using a cotton swab, you put yourself at risk for further injury and damage to the ear.
Most cotton swabs are about the size of an average person’s ear canal. Cotton swabs do not have any suction or hooking mechanisms - when you place a cotton swab directly into the ear canal, you are most likely pushing the wax further into the ear. This will only cause the blockage to worsen as it compacts itself deeper into the ear canal. You may even cause permanent damage to your eardrum!
Although earwax is often beneficial for your ear’s health, too much of a good thing will inevitably cause problems. Your body may secrete too much earwax, or you may compact it further by using cotton swabs. You may need to visit a medical professional if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Ringing (also known as tinnitus)
- Hearing loss
Special tools may be required to clear the wax blockage. Again, attempting to remove the earwax with a cotton swab will often do more harm than good.
You can follow these simple cleaning tips at home to prevent excessive wax buildup:
- Only clean your ears with a soapy washcloth. Cover your finger with the washcloth and be careful to only clean the outer rim of your ear.
- Never insert a cotton swab into your ear or ear canal.
- Use medications as prescribed by your doctor to prevent the buildup of excessive wax.
Excess water in the ear can also cause permanent damage. Your risk of infection or inflammation increases if water is trapped around the outside of the ear or inside the ear canals. Infection of the ear canal can be extremely painful - you may notice redness around the ear, drainage or unusual pressure.
These symptoms occur when fungus or bacteria thrive within the confines of the ear. You may have heard this type of infection referred to as swimmer’s ear. You may be at risk for infection if you spend large amounts of time in chlorinated or stagnated water.
Thankfully, swimmer’s ear is easily treatable through medication. You may be issued any of the following medications if you are diagnosed with an infection or inflammation of the ear:
- Anti-inflammatory drugs
- Antibiotic eardrops
- Antifungal medication
- Steroid eardrops
You can also take preventive measures to reduce the risk of excess water or chemicals affecting your ears:
- Thoroughly dry and drain your ears after showering or swimming.
- Ensure all soap is washed away or dried after you shower.
- Do your best to avoid swimming in unclean or stagnant water.
- Never insert anything into your ear canal, such as cotton swabs or your fingers.
- Consider using a tight-fitting swim cap if you are a swimmer.
Avoid water buildup in and around your ears by taking safety precautions. With the proper care, you can greatly reduce your risk of infection.
Your hearing is an invaluable possession. Thankfully, many of the symptoms and risks we have shared with you are preventable. Our ears are naturally exposed, so adhere to the same principles you would follow for eye or nasal health.
Here are some additional ways to reduce the risk of ear infections and hearing damage. We’ve included a few examples and ideas to help parents and their children promote clean ear health:
- Reduce exposure to environmental factors that might trigger allergic reactions.
- Avoid exposure to excess noise, especially in young children.
- Avoid exposure to cigarette smoke or smoke from wood-burning stoves.
- Use proper handwashing techniques and other practices to avoid spreading germs.
- Always consult a healthcare professional if you have further questions or concerns.
When accidents happen - CareNow is here!
If you or your child have or suspect a foreign object in the ear, take comfort in knowing a local CareNow Urgent Care facility is here for your family’s medical needs. Choosing a CareNow urgent care center means you don’t have to wait for an appointment, you can be confident in knowing you are in good hands!