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Ear irrigation (flushing) is a routine procedure used to remove excess earwax, or cerumen, and foreign materials from the ear.

The ear naturally secretes wax to protect and lubricate the ear as well as to keep debris out and hinder bacterial growth. Under normal conditions, the body keeps the amount of earwax in the ears under control. Too much earwax or hardened earwax can cause a blockage in the ear, resulting in earaches, ringing in the ears, or temporary hearing loss.

Purpose of ear flushing

The ear, especially the canal and eardrum, is very sensitive. Earwax buildup can cause damage to these structures over time. This can affect your hearing. Removing excess earwax with ear irrigation is a safe way to minimize the risk of damage to the ear.

Sometimes foreign materials like food, insects, or small stones can get into the ear. In these cases, the goal is to safely and quickly remove the items before they move deeper into the ear or do damage to the delicate canal. Ear irrigation can be effective in removing foreign materials from the ear.

Ear flushing process

Before your practiitoner performs an ear flushing, they will want to look inside your ear to ensure that your symptoms are the result of excess wax buildup or foreign materials and not something more serious.

Your nurse may see excess earwax by inserting an instrument called an otoscope into the opening of your ear. The otoscope shines a light into your ear and magnifies the image.

If wax buildup is the issue, your nurse will perform the irrigation in their office using a pressurized bottle with a 3 way spraying tip. This tool will be used to insert water or a water into the ear to flush out the wax. You may feel slight discomfort from the water in your ear or from holding your ear in place.

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Risks of ear irrigation

Do not undergo ear flushing (either at home or at a doctor’s office) if you have a damaged eardrum, tubes in your ears, or a condition that weakens your immune system. You also should not receive ear flushing treatmetn if you have an active infection in your ear canal. While ear irrigation is a relatively common procedure, there are risks associated with it:

Otitis externa is a common complication. This is inflammation of the ear canal that could be caused by infection. It can be painful. Another potential complication is otitis media, which is inflammation of the middle ear that could also be caused by infection. Ear infections are one of the most common complications of ear irrigations.

Perforated eardrum

Perforated eardrums are another potential complication of ear irrigation. In some cases, ear irrigation will press against the wax and make it more compacted. This makes it harder to remove and may put more pressure on the eardrum, increasing risk of perforation. In some cases, fluid becomes trapped in the ear canal and causes an increase in pressure that can rupture the eardrum.

Other complications

In rare cases, additional complications can occur. These include:

  • vertigo, which is the sensation of the room spinning in circles around you (typically temporary)
  • deafness, which can be temporary or permanent

Since earwax buildup can be harmful over time or be the result of other health conditions, see your doctor if your symptoms aren’t improving after at-home care. They may want to try other methods or send you to an ear specialist. Those who use hearing aids are especially prone to having earwax buildup. Additionally, cotton-tipped swabs should not be inserted into the ear canal, as these are known to push wax against the eardrum and ear canal.

Side effects

Many people experience a number of side effects from ear irrigation. These side effects are not typically as serious as the complications discussed above, but they can be uncomfortable.

Common side effects of ear irrigation include:

  • temporary dizziness
  • ear canal discomfort or pain
  • tinnitus, or ringing in the ears

Side effects are typically short-lasting and go away within a day. If you experience pain or discomfort that gets worse instead of better or have any other symptoms, make an appointment to see your doctor. If you experience severe pain, make an appointment to see them right away in case you have a perforated eardrum or other ear damage.