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Ear Blockages

By

Bradley W. Kesser

, MD, University of Virginia School of Medicine

Reviewed/Revised Feb 2024
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Foreign objects are a common cause, particularly among children, who often put objects, particularly beads, erasers, and beans, into the ear canal.

Symptoms of Ear Blockages

Ear blockages may cause

  • Itching

  • Pain

  • A feeling of fullness in the ear

  • Temporary hearing loss

Symptoms of excessive earwax can range from itching to a feeling of fullness in the ear to a loss of hearing. However, even large amounts of earwax often cause no symptoms.

Foreign objects may remain unnoticed until they cause pain, itching, infection, or a foul-smelling, pus-filled discharge.

Diagnosis of Ear Blockages

  • A doctor's examination

Doctors can usually identify a blockage based on symptoms and results of a physical examination.

Treatment of Ear Blockages

  • Methods to remove ear blockages

Doctors can usually identify a blockage based on symptoms and a physical examination.

Before and after attempting to remove earwax, a foreign object, or an insect, doctors may do a hearing test, particularly if the person also reports hearing loss. If the person's hearing does not return after the blockage is removed, the blockage (or prior attempts to remove it) may have damaged the middle or inner ear. If the person's hearing worsens after the blockage is removed, the removal process may have caused damage. Permanent injury to the ear canal or eardrum, pain, and hearing loss are rare if earwax or foreign objects are removed in a careful and safe manner with adequate lighting and appropriate instruments.

Removal of earwax

To remove earwax, the doctor may use an

  • Earwax curette—an instrument with a loop at the end

  • Suction device

These methods can be quicker and safer than the use of water to flush out the wax (irrigation). Irrigation is sometimes done and may be combined with an agent to soften the ear wax. Irrigation is definitely not used if a person has or has had a perforated eardrum (hole in the eardrum), because water can enter the middle ear (air containing space on the other side of the eardrum) and cause a middle ear infection. Similarly, irrigation is not used if there is any discharge from the ear because the discharge may be coming from a perforated eardrum. Irrigation is also not used in people with an ear infection, diabetes mellitus, any disorder that weakens a person's immune system, prior radiation therapy to the head and neck, and certain ear canal abnormalities and in people on blood thinning drugs. Discharge from the ear is most safely removed with a small suction device and use of a microscope.

Certain solvents (such as liquid docusate sodium, hydrogen peroxide, glycerin, or mineral oil) help soften earwax before the doctor attempts to remove it. However, these solvents cannot be used long-term because they may irritate the skin or cause allergic reactions in the ear canal. People should not attempt to remove earwax at home with cotton swabs, bobby pins, pencils, ear candles, or any other items. Such attempts usually just pack the earwax deeper into the canal and can damage the eardrum. Putting a lit ear candle in the ear is neither effective nor safe for removing earwax. This practice is strongly discouraged.

Did You Know...

  • People should not attempt to remove earwax at home with cotton swaps, bobby pins, pencils, ear candles, or any other items. Such attempts usually just pack the earwax deeper into the canal and can damage the eardrum.

Removal of a foreign object

Foreign objects in the ear canal should be removed by a health care practitioner and, in some cases, an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor). The doctor carefully removes the foreign object using a microscope and special tools. For some objects, the doctor uses a small, blunt hook or small vacuum device. Objects with an edge (such as paper) can be removed with small forceps. Objects that are deep in the canal are more difficult to remove because the eardrum may be injured in the process.

For many children, removal of a foreign object is usually safest when done in an operating room. In an operating room, children can be sedated or given anesthesia to lessen pain and help them remain still and thus prevent additional injury to the ear.

Insects, particularly cockroaches, may block the ear canal. To kill the insect, the doctor fills the ear canal with thickened lidocaine (a numbing agent that provides immediate pain relief) or alcohol (if the eardrum is intact). After several minutes, the insect dies, enabling the doctor to remove it.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
BeneHealth Stool Softner, Colace, Colace Clear, Correctol, D.O.S., DC, Diocto, Doc-Q-Lace, Docu Liquid, DocuLace, Docusoft S, DocuSol, DocuSol Kids, DOK, DOK Extra Strength, Dulcolax, Dulcolax Pink, Enemeez, ENEMEEZ Kids, Fleet Pedia-Lax, Genasoft, Kaopectate Liqui-Gels, Kao-Tin , Phillips Stool Softener, Plus PHARMA, Silace, Stool Softener , Stool Softener DC, Stool Softener Extra Strength, Sulfolax, Surfak, Sur-Q-Lax , Uni-Ease , VACUANT
CLEAR CARE PLUS with HydraGlyde, ESKATA, HYLAMEND
Colace Glycerin, Fleet, Fleet Pedia-Lax, HydroGel, Introl , Lubrin, Orajel Dry Mouth, Osmoglyn, Sani-Supp
Fleet, Kondremul, Liqui-Doss, Muri-Lube
7T Lido, Akten , ALOCANE, ANASTIA, AneCream, Anestacon, Aspercreme with Lidocaine, AsperFlex, Astero , BenGay, Blue Tube, Blue-Emu, CidalEaze, DermacinRx Lidocan III, DermacinRx Lidogel, DermacinRx Lidorex, DERMALID, Ela-Max, GEN7T, Glydo, Gold Bond, LidaFlex, LidaMantle, Lidocan, Lidocare, Lidoderm, LidoDose, LidoDose Pediatric, Lidofore, LidoHeal-90, LIDO-K , LidoLite, Lidomar , Lidomark, LidoPure, LidoReal-30, LidoRx, Lidosense 4 , Lidosense 5, Lidosol, Lidosol-50, LIDO-SORB, Lidotral, Lidovix L, LIDOZION, Lidozo, LMX 4, LMX 4 with Tegaderm, LMX 5, LTA, Lydexa, Moxicaine, Numbonex, ReadySharp Lidocaine, RectaSmoothe, RectiCare, Salonpas Lidocaine, Senatec, Solarcaine, SUN BURNT PLUS, Tranzarel, Xyliderm, Xylocaine, Xylocaine Dental, Xylocaine in Dextrose, Xylocaine MPF, Xylocaine Topical, Xylocaine Topical Jelly, Xylocaine Topical Solution, Xylocaine Viscous, Zilactin-L, Zingo, Zionodi, ZTlido
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