Ever hear the one about the guy who lit a candle and stuck it in his ear? People actually do this — it’s called candling— and it supposedly removes earwax and improves health. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist — or an emergency room doctor — to realize that this is a foolish and dangerous practice. Even though the lit end of the candle isn’t placed in the ear, the varieties of injuries that have resulted from candling are horrifying — including hot wax dripping down the center of the hollow candle into the ear canal and requiring surgery to remove it, leaving the patient with a perforated ear drum.

Richard O’Brien, MD, FACEP, a contributing medical editor to Daily Health News, isn’t surprised at the notion of candling. He’s seen it all in his Scranton, Pennsylvania, emergency room — patients who have put any number of appalling items into their ears, usually in an attempt to clean out earwax. These items have included safety pins, hairpins, toothpicks and pencils. It all makes me think of a song my nephew used to play on his little CD player when he was small… it went “My mommy said not to put beans in my ears, beans in my ears, beans in my ears!” Clearly, something is driving us, tots and grown-ups alike, to abuse our ears — so I thought it would be good if Dr. O’Brien told us what we really shouldb e doing with them.

What’s In There?

Your ear is a complex and delicate organ consisting of three vital parts—the inner, middle and outer ear. We all produce earwax (doctors refer to it as cerumen), which performs an important biological function — it acts as a barrier to capture those things from the environment such as dirt, dust and all manner of debris that drift into your ears each day. But some people produce too much wax or fail to practice proper ear hygiene and end up with wax buildup. Over time, this causes problems such as mild-to-moderate hearing loss and/or discomfort. If you continue to leave the accumulation unattended (a not-uncommon problem with older people), it can cause discomfort… pain… ringing or tinnitus… trouble hearing… and even loss of balance.

Should you reach that point, you’re in for an unpleasant medical experience. When earwax is really impacted, Dr. O’Brien said, removing it in the ER takes about 45 minutes per ear, and it can really hurt (suction and scraping instruments are used to dislodge the wax). In fact, the process is so time-consuming that many ERs are no longer willing to do it, and neither are many family doctors! They’ll send you off to an ear, nose and throat specialist who can remove wax using special tools (and an operating headset light to see what he/she is doing) before irrigating your ears with warm water.

Practice Proper Hygiene: Don’t Mess with Your Inner Ear!

Good ear hygiene entails caring for the outer part of the ear only, but oftentimes overzealous individuals reach in too far to clear out wax with cotton swabs — not to mention cringe-inducing implements ranging from fingers to lollipop sticks (ouch!) — and risking serious damage to their fragile middle and inner ears. In reality, extending your reach beyond the visible portion of your ear just pushes wax in further, potentially leading to blockages and infections. If you overdo it, in the worst-case scenario you may rupture your eardrum and permanently damage your hearing.

Dr. O’Brien gave me the lowdown on proper ear hygiene. Simple but important:

  • Practice regular self-care. Whenever you shower or bathe, gently use a warm, wet washcloth to clear any excess wax present in the outer ear.
  • Use an over-the-counter (OTC) ear-care kit. If earwax still starts to get out of hand — you’ll know because your ears might feel “full” or sound may seem muffled — visit your drugstore and buy an ear-care kit. In it, you will find drops to soften excess wax and a rubber bulb or syringe to gently squeeze warm water into your ear canal to help coax wax out. Wax flows easily when softened because the ear is naturally self-cleaning — tiny muscles lining the ear canal continually push the wax toward the outer ear, says Dr. O’Brien. To avoid a mess, he recommends that you do the job in the comfort of your own bathtub.
  • Don’t put foreign objects in your ear. This includes cotton swabs! If you’re old school and feel that you must use a cotton swab, apply it to the outside part of your ear only — the part you can see with your naked eye. And never put anything else in your ears, including fingers or pencils or (heaven forbid) pins.
  • If you are in pain, go to the ER. Pain can be a sign of a serious problem such as a punctured eardrum. One of the most common causes — pushing a cotton swab too far in. Don’t do it!