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Is Earwax Removal Safe?

I've heard that using a cotton swab to remove my child's earwax isn't a good idea. Is this true? And, if so, how can I clean my child's ears safely?
- Arya

That's true — it's not a good idea to stick anything into a child's ears. Doing so raises the risk of contracting an infection or permanently damaging eardrums and hearing. Regular bathing should be enough to keep earwax at normal levels.

The waxy substance (called cerumen) that the ears make performs important functions. It provides a coating for the skin lining the ear canal, which helps keep the canal skin from getting too wet or dry, which helps prevent irritation or infection.

It also traps dirt, dust, and other particles, keeping them from injuring or irritating the eardrum. While some people have more earwax than others — just as some people tend to sweat more than others — in general, the ear makes just as much wax as it needs.

In some cases, a hardened lump of wax can form in the canal, which can make it difficult to hear in that ear or even trap bacteria and cause an infection. If this happens, don't stick anything inside the ear to try to remove the wax yourself. Doing so could cause permanent hearing damage.

If your child needs to have earwax removed, a medical professional should remove it in an office or clinical setting. For hearing problems or pain or irritation in or near the ears, talk with your doctor, who can examine your child to determine the cause.

And while earwax remedies are sold in stores, it's important not to use anything inside a child's ears unless told to do so by a doctor.

Reviewed by: Patrick Barth, MD
Date reviewed: June 2011

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