Cotton swabs are standard equipment in many family bathrooms. They're handy implements for a variety of grooming needs, but often are used to remove earwax — a common but potentially hazardous practice.
While some people have more earwax than others, in general the ear makes just as much wax as it needs. In some rare cases, kids' ears do make excess earwax. If it interferes with hearing or causes pain or discomfort, it needs to be removed by a doctor. But only a medical professional can determine whether earwax should be removed and rule out other issues that could be causing symptoms.
Parents — and kids — shouldn't attempt to remove earwax at home, even with remedies that promise to be safe and effective. Doing so risks damage to the ear canal and, possibly, a child's hearing.
Why Do Ears Make Wax?
Earwax is made in the outer ear canal, the area between the fleshy part of the ear on the outside of the head and the middle ear. The medical term for earwax is cerumen.
Earwax has many important functions. It helps protect the eardrum and ear canal by providing a waterproof lining for the ear canal, helping to keep it dry and preventing germs from causing infection. It also traps dirt, dust, and other particles, keeping them from injuring or irritating the eardrum.
After the wax is produced, it slowly makes its way through the outer ear canal to the opening of the ear. Then it either falls out or comes out during bathing. In most people, the outer ear canal makes earwax all the time, so the canal always has enough wax in it.
In most cases, nothing needs to be done to remove earwax from kids' ears; regular bathing is typically enough to keep it at healthy levels.
If your child complains of ear discomfort and you see earwax in the ear, it's OK to wipe the outside of the ear with a washcloth. But it's important to not use a cotton swab, a finger, or anything else to poke inside the ear because of the risk of damaging the delicate ear canal and eardrum, or packing the wax in even further, which could cause infection.
If your child is having any ear pain, discomfort, hearing problems, or an uncomfortable blocked feeling in the ears, talk with your doctor. (In infants and toddlers, tugging at the ears can be sign of an ear issue.) Many over-the-counter treatments are sold for earwax removal, but don't use them without consulting a doctor.
Ear candling has gained a lot of attention as a home remedy for earwax removal (and overall well-being), but doctors strongly advise against it because it hasn't been proved to be safe or effective. In ear candling, one end of a cone-type device is inserted into the ear canal and the other end is set on fire, with the idea that the fire and the cone form a vacuum and extract the wax. But trying this at home means a high risk of burning the ear canal and possibly perforating or punching a hole in the eardrum, which can permanently damage hearing.
Sometimes doctors will remove earwax if it's causing pain and discomfort or interfering with hearing, or to get a better view of the eardrum to check for problems.
Earwax removal usually is done in the doctor's office. There might be a little discomfort but it isn't painful, though some kids may be uncomfortable with the sensation of someone handling their ears.
In rare cases where a child can't sit still or cooperate with the doctor, the procedure will be done in an operating room with the child given general anesthesia.
Doctors use a variety of different tools to remove earwax, including a tiny device with a curve at the end (called a curette), graspers, and suction, as well as an otoscope (a handheld tool with a light, used in regular checkups to see far into the ear canal). Removal takes just a few minutes and usually doesn't require any further treatment.
If there's a sign of infection, the doctor may prescribe antibiotic eardrops. But further home treatment usually isn't needed after most removals.
If you have any concerns about your child's ears or hearing, consult your doctor.
Reviewed by: Patrick Barth, MD
Date reviewed: June 2011