The outer ear is the funnel-like part of the ear you can see on the side of the head, plus the ear canal, which is the hole that leads to the eardrum. The outer ear’s function is to collect sounds.
Common issues with the outer ear include:
- Ear Wax Build-Up
- Swimmer’s Ear
- Eczema of the Ear Canal
- Foreign Objects in the Ear
Ear Wax Blockages
The skin covering the outer part of the ear canal has special glands that produce ear wax. The purpose of the wax is to keep dust and dirt particles from reaching the eardrum. Normally, this wax will either dry out and fall out of the ear on its own or it will work its way to the outside where it can be wiped off.
Sometimes attempts to clean the ear actually push the wax deeper into the ear canal, causing a wax blockage, which is one of the most common causes of hearing loss.
- Partial Hearing Loss (may be progressive)
- Tinnitus, Noises in the Ear
- Fullness in the Ear
- Sensation the Ear is Plugged
Should You Clean Your Ears?
When the ear becomes blocked with wax, it’s usually caused by probing the ear with things such as Q-Tips® or bobby pins. While many people believe these things help clean their ears, they actually only serve to push the wax deeper into the ear. Most of the time the ear canal is self-cleaning – meaning the wax usually works its way out from the eardrum to the ear opening where is dries, flakes and falls out on its own.
Ideally, you should never have to clean your ear canals. However, this isn’t always the case. If you do indeed need to clean your ears, you should wash the external ear with a cloth (such as a washcloth) over a finger – but do not insert anything into the ear canal.
Self-Treatment for Ear Wax Blockages
Placing a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil or commercial ear drops in the ear will often soften the ear wax inside. But these methods are only recommended if there is no hole in the eardrum. Hydrogen peroxide can also be used; however, it results in oxygen bubbling off and water being left behind. Warm, wet ear canals can then result in the growth of bacteria. So if peroxide is used, flushing the ear canal with rubbing alcohol afterwards displaces the water and dries the canal skin. If the alcohol causes severe pain, it could mean the eardrum is perforated.
When You Should See a Doctor
If you aren’t sure whether you have a hole (perforation or puncture) in your eardrum, call your doctor before trying any at-home or over-the-counter methods of self-treatment. Ear drops used in an ear with an eardrum perforation could cause an infection. Water through such a hole could also start an infection.
If appropriate home treatments don’t help, see your doctor and they may prescribe eardrops to soften the wax so that it can be washed or vacuumed out during an office visit. Occasionally, a microscopic exam may be needed for an EN&T specialist to remove the wax.
Normally, when water gets into the ear it runs back out and the ear dries out with no problems. When Swimmer’s ear occurs however, water remains trapped in the ear canal, the skin them gets soggy and bacteria and fungi can begin to grow, thus infecting the outer ear.
- Ear Feels Blocked & May Itch
- Swollen Ear Canal (sometimes swells shut)
- Ears Drain a Runny, Cloudy Liquid
- Ear Becomes Very Painful & Tender to Touch
If you have these symptoms or if the glands in your neck become swollen, you need to see your doctor.
If you have itchy, flaky ears or ear wax build-up, you may be more likely to develop Swimmer’s Ear – so be especially careful when you expose your ears to water.
How to Prevent Swimmer’s Ear
Over-the-counter ear drops are available to help prevent Swimmer’s Ear, and they’re easy to use. If your ear feels wet or blocked after being exposed to water, tilt your head sideways with the affected ear up. Pull the ear upward and backward then put the eardrops in to dry out the ear. Wiggle your ear to get the drops all the way down into the ear canal. Then turn your head over to let them drain out. These drops can be purchased without a prescription.
For further treatment, check with your EN&T doctor. It may be suggested that you make your own eardrops using rubbing alcohol as part of the mixture. As the alcohol evaporates, it absorbs any water inside the ear and helps dry it out. It may even kill the bacteria and fungi that cause Swimmer’s Ear.
If this problem occurs frequently, your EN&T doctor may suggest placing oily eardrops in your ears before swimming to protect them from the effects of the water.
Eczema of the Ear Canal
Itching ears can drive you crazy! While this can be caused by fungus or allergies, it’s most often the result of chronic dermatitis (skin inflammation) of the ear canal. Seborrheic dermatitis is a condition much like dandruff, where the ear wax is dry, flaky and abundant. If you have this condition, it’s important to avoid foods that aggravate it, such as greasy foods, sugars, starches, carbohydrates and chocolates. Cortisone eardrops at bedtime are often prescribed when the ears begin to itch. This condition can be controlled, although there’s no long-term cure.
Foreign Objects in the Ear
Beads, pencil lead, erasers and dried beans are common objects that children (most often) put in their ears. Removal is a delicate task that must be performed by a skilled physician. So, if you or your child has something stuck in your ear, it’s important to see your doctor.