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Harbus Health

Many people have experienced “ear infections” as children. These are typically infections of the middle ear, inside the ear drum, associated with colds or teething. Adults continue to get these types of infections but at UHS we see other ear problems as well associated with the outer ear and the ear canal.

Why do we have ear wax, anyway?
Cerumen, or ear wax, is a normal secretion of the cells lining the outer third of the ear canal. It acts to repel water and keep the ear dry, and it traps debris (and occasionally insects!). Cerumen grows out with the skin of the canal and is shed at the opening.

Should I clean my ear canals?
Attempts to remove ear wax in the ear canal are a MISTAKE. Objects inserted into the ear canal can puncture the delicate skin forming the eardrum and because the canal narrows, cerumen pushed there can form a plug which cannot grow out normally. Symptoms of cerumen plugging or impaction are decreased hearing and a pressure sensation. Any loss of hearing should be evaluated; this cause of hearing loss is treated with removal of the plug in the office and an immediate resolution of symptoms.

What is Swimmer’s Ear (Otitis Externa)?
The ear canal is a blind opening closed at the inner border by the ear drum or tympanic membrane. The skin of the canal is subject to infection with water-borne organisms which can be introduced from contaminated ocean, lake or pool water. Infection of the canal tends to be very painful and is often accompanied by a purulent discharge.

Can you protect yourself from Swimmer’s Ear?
If you are prone to infection and suspect you might have been exposed to contaminated water, you can sometimes ward off symptoms by altering the acidity of the ear canal. This can be done by introducing dilute acetic acid (vinegar) or dilute hydrogen peroxide into the canal. You should not try this if you know or suspect your ear drum has a hole in it. If you do develop an infection, it can be treated with a topical liquid antibiotic/corticosteroid preparation.

Is ear piercing dangerous?
Any piercing can provide access for a bacteria or viral infection, but performed with good antiseptic technique and sterile equipment, many people are able to have multiple piercings in the fleshy bottom of the outer ear. Ear piercing of the stiffer, cartilaginous part of the ear is to be avoided. Cartilage has relatively poor circulation, the initial wound heals more slowly and infection at this site is much harder to treat.

Why do some people have trouble wearing earrings?
Continuous exposure to certain alloys of metal can sensitize some people to these components and they develop an allergy. We see this with belt buckles and watches but most commonly with earrings. The allergy manifests as redness, itching, and sometimes a blistering of the skin. It is treated with a corticosteroid cream and elimination of the allergen either by ceasing to wear earrings or switching to studs/earrings without the offending metal-either stainless steel, sterling silver or a purer gold.

January 20, 2004
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