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Back To Vidyya Nothing Smaller Than An Elbow

How To Take Care Of Your Ears

Most common ear problems are of our own making. It's said that "nothing smaller than the elbow" should be put into the ear. Yet still people fiddle with them, and stuff all sorts of things into them. Is it any surprise then that they play us up from time to time?

Waxy ears

One of the commonest complaints seen in general practice is a blocked ear. Believe it or not, the problem is usually caused by wax that has been pounded into the ear by the end of a cotton bud, like a pile driver. As well as the blocked sensation, waxy ears reduce hearing, can cause a ringing sound (tinnitus), and sometimes pain too.

Many people were brought up to believe that cleaning out the ears was a good thing, that it was hygienic. We now know that this does more harm than good. The ear has its own internal cleaning mechanism that can manage without our help.

Secreted along the canal are fats and oils called cerumen, which protect the ear and trap any particles that enter it. Mixed together, this form wax which is transported out of the ear by lots of little hairs functioning like a conveyor belt. The wax then falls out without us even noticing.

The moment we try and clean the ear, this wax is not only pushed back in, but is compacted too. Hard, compacted wax is extremely difficult to shift. Hence, it gets stuck and are ears become blocked.

Olive oil is very soothing and will soften the wax, enabling it to come out. Two drops into each ear, twice a day, is enough, and the cheapest oil will do the job, as well as expensive oils. Wax softening drops can also be purchased from the pharmacist. Sometimes, the wax needs to be gently syringed out and the GP, or practice nurse can do this.

There's also no need to dry ears with a towel, cotton buds, or tissue paper. Let them dry naturally, or gently use a hair-drier on low heat.

Help yourself...

  • Don't try and clean your ears
  • Use olive oil to soften wax and soothe irritation
  • Never put anything smaller than your elbow into your ear
  • Follow care advice after piercing
  • Use sun protection cream and wear a wide-brimmed hat

Otitis external

Itchy ears are miserable, and when the ear is affected with eczema or psoriasis, they can be consistently uncomfortable.

Fingers, pens, pencils, or whatever is to hand, find their way into the ear in a desperate search for relief. But scratching, or poking when the ear is blocked, damages the ear canal's sensitive lining, allowing infection to get in, called otitis externa. This can also happen when ears become waterlogged through swimming.

The canal swells, becoming narrow and exquisitely painful. Hearing becomes a problem, and often a discharge appears from the ear.

Under these circumstances, antibiotic drops are needed, together with a strong painkiller. When it's very severe, the ear needs to be cleaned out by an ear specialist if the treatment is to be effective.


One hole, two holes, three holes; some have many more. Fashionable they may be, but fashion often comes with a price.

Anything that damages the skin not only hurts, but can also allow infection in. This is often the case with ear piercing, when the skin hasn't been looked after properly during the piercing or afterwards. Skin infections are painful and unsightly, quite the opposite of the desired effect of having the ear pierced.

Many people are allergic to certain inexpensive metals, for example, nickel, which can also make the outside of the ear swell and feel uncomfortable. For this reason, pure metals, for example gold, are best used.

Also follow the advice given for caring for the ear afterwards, so the chance of suffering problems is kept to a minimum.


Most people remember to protect their face. Men forget the bald-patch on top of the head. But many people don't realise that the top of the ears are very exposed and sensitive to the sun's harmful UV rays.

How often have you noticed your ears peeling? They're not peeling out of sympathy for the rest of the body; they're peeling because they've been burnt.

The solution is simple. Don't forget to protect them with sun protection cream and wear a hat that keeps them in the shade. Skin cancer can affect the ears too, and often does.

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Editor: Susan K. Boyer, RN
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