Should You Clean Your Child's Ears? Featuring Dr. David Mener
4/27/22 in Blog Posts
Should You Clean Your Child's Ears?
By Cat Matta Published on April 25, 2022
Medically reviewed by Tyra Tennyson Francis, MD
Some of the most common questions in a pediatrician’s office are whether or not you should clean your child’s ears and, if so, how you should go about it.1 While gunked-up wax in your kid’s ears isn’t necessarily an attractive look, it’s typically harmless. Earwax even serves a purpose. Of course, sometimes it can build up and interfere with ear health or cause other concerns. If that’s the case, then it should be removed.1 But there are right and wrong ways to go about it.
Ahead, learn more about if you should clean your child’s ears, how to safely do it, and when it might be time to call your pediatrician. Plus, find out whether cotton swabs are OK to use.
Should I Clean My Child's Ears?
Our ear canals produce a substance called cerumen, otherwise known as earwax, due to it being a similar consistency to household wax. It provides a waterproof barrier to protect the eardrum from water, dust, dirt, and other debris. It also contains enzymes that protect ears by helping to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungus.1
Usually, ears produce the optimal amount of wax that they need. However, some people—and kids—produce an overabundance. No matter how much earwax you or your kid have, your ears help regulate excess by gradually moving it from the inside to the outside of your ear canal.
So, there's usually no need to clean your child’s ears.2 “If it is not bothering the child, then do not let it bother you,” advises Ann Masciantonio, M.D, MS, FAAP, and chief of ambulatory pediatrics at ChristianaCare Pediatric Associates in Newark, Del.
But, if excess earwax does build-up, it can become impacted and interfere with hearing or cause other bothersome symptoms.2 “Earwax, if excessive, can result in blocking the ear canal, causing difficulty hearing, ringing, fullness, discharge, pain, itch, odor, and cough,” says Dr. Masciantonio. “Rarely, but occasionally, excessive earwax can cause dizziness and balance problems.”
She also notes that symptoms such as these are usually short-lived, but they can be helped by removing the excess earwax. In the case of a blockage (a.k.a. impaction), always contact your child's pediatrician for removal.
How To Clean Your Child's Ears
If your child’s earwax isn’t causing any symptoms but it’s visible at the entrance to their ear canal, there are a few ways you can help safely remove it at home. In more serious cases, you should always speak to a pediatrician. Below, find out different things you can try at home, as well as options your kid’s healthcare provider may use.
One way to clean your child's ears requires just a washcloth and some water. “I recommend a damp washcloth to gently clean the outside of the ears only,” says David Mener, MD, a board-certified otolaryngology (ear, nose, and throat) head and neck surgeon in New Rochelle, New York, and fellow of the American Academy of Otolaryngic Allergy. Doing this while giving your kid a warm bath or shower can aid your efforts by helping to soften the wax.
Hydrogen Peroxide or Debrox
You can also help soften earwax buildup with formulas found at your local drug store, which may be particularly useful if your child has had impacted earwax in the past.
“For children who are prone to cerumen impaction (ear wax impaction), I recommend gently using hydrogen peroxide or Debrox with an eyedropper (a few drops) to help soften earwax,” advises Dr. Mener. That way, it’ll be easier for your kid’s ears to naturally move the wax out of their ear so you can remove it with a washcloth.
There is one caveat, however, if you’re thinking of going the OTC route. “Over-the-counter products are available to help treat earwax buildup, but these products may lead to more problems,” Dr. Masciantonio warns.
One of these is ear candling, which claims to remove earwax by lighting the top of a candle-like product to “vacuum” out wax and debris. The FDA strongly warns against it due to a high risk of burns and ear damage.3 Always check with your pediatrician or a pediatric ENT before getting an at-home earwax removal product.
Post-Bathing Head Tilt
To help your kid’s natural process of expelling earwax, after a bath or shower, you can teach them to tilt their head from one side to the other to help get any remaining water and loose wax out of their ears.1
If your child is experiencing any of the symptoms of earwax impaction, your child's pediatrician or a pediatric ENT can use special instruments to either suction, scoop, or pull out the blockage. Other options they may try are to flush your kid’s ears with warm water, use wax-softening drops, or prescribe you drops to use at home.
In severe cases, or if your little one has trouble sitting still in the pediatrician’s office, problematic earwax can be removed in an operating room while your child is under general anesthesia.2
Are Cotton Swabs OK to Use?
Although many people use cotton swabs to clean their ears, this practice isn’t safe for either you or your child. “Cotton swabs are not meant to be used in the ear canal,” warns Dr. Masciantonio. “Putting cotton swabs in the ears can not only push earwax further up in the canal, but it can cause damage to the canal and eardrum, resulting in pain, bleeding, infection, eardrum perforation, and permanent hearing loss.”
She backs up the danger by explaining that pediatric eardrum injuries caused by cotton swabs are seen in the emergency room every single day.4
Using cotton swabs in clean ears is unilaterally condemned in the medical community. If you look for it, cotton swab packaging specifically states that they are not intended for use in the ears.5 “We strongly advise against using cotton swabs,” concurs Dr. Mener. “They tend to push ear wax further into the ear canal.”
You should also resist any urge you may have to use cotton swabs in your own ears, especially in front of your child. Your kid is likely to want to mimic you, so it’s important to set a good example.
One thing to keep in mind is an old adage: “Never put anything smaller than your elbow inside your ear or your child’s.” Obviously, your elbow isn’t ever going to fit in your or your kid’s ear canal, but it emphasizes the importance of never sticking anything in either of your ears.1
A Word From Verywell
Most of the time, there’s generally no need to clean inside your child’s ears. However, if they have excess earwax that you can see or that’s bothering them, there are simple—and safe—ways to get rid of it at home. But, if they have any issues with their hearing, ears ringing, or feelings of fullness, as well as discharge, pain, itch, odor, cough, or balance, always speak to their pediatrician or a pediatric ENT.