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My Child Has Ear Wax In His Ear, Should I Be Worried?

Written by Kristen Stuppy MD. Dr. Stuppy is a practicing pediatrician in Kansas. She feels privileged to be able to help families keep their children healthy and she loves watching entire families grow!  Dr Stuppy is active on Facebook and puts a more personal touch to pediatric topics on her blog.

5085250_f520We make ear wax, also known as cerumen. Many people are annoyed by wax buildup, but it has a purpose! Wax grabs all the dust, dirt, and other debris that gets into our ears.

It also moisturizes the ear canal ~ without it our ears become itchy. It even has special properties that prevent infection. That’s all good stuff, so don’t be too frustrated with a little wax!

Most often the wax moves from the inner part of the ear canal to the outer edge of the canal on its own.

It is amazing to me how our bodies are put together so perfectly: it is designed so the wax is made deep in the canal, then skin cells and wax migrate to the outer edge of the canal, taking with them debris! Some people naturally make dry wax, others make wet wax.

This can be due to genetics and other factors. The important thing to remember with this is how your wax tends to build up and how to best keep it from building up.

If wax builds up it can cause pain, itching, ringing in the ear, dizziness, decreased hearing, and infection. Inappropriate cleaning with hard and/or sharp objects (such as an cotton swabs or paperclips) can increase the risk of infection or even perforation of the ear drum.

Even special cotton swabs made “safe for ears” can push wax deeper and cause a solid collection of wax plugging up the canal.

How can parents help babies and kids keep their ears clean?

  • Routine bathing with clean warm water allowed to run into the ear followed by a gentle wiping with a cloth is all that is needed most of the time.
  • Ear drops made for wax removal with carbamide peroxide can be put in the ear as long as there is no hole in the ear drum or tubes. The oily peroxide acts to grab the wax and bubble it up. Then rinse with clean warm water and a soft cloth (see syringe tips below).
  • If there is excessive buildup, daily use of drops for 3-5 days followed by weekly use of the drops to prevent more buildup is recommended. (For particularly stubborn wax, using drops 2-3 times/day for 3-5 days initially can help.)
  • Make your own solution of 1:1 warm water:vinegar and gently irrigate the ear with a bulb syringe.
  • Mineral oil or glycerin drops can be put in the ear. Let a few drops soak for a few minutes and then rinse with warm water and a soft cloth.
  • Occasional use of a syringe to gently irrigate the ear can help. Using the bulb syringe:
  • First, be sure it is clean! Fungi and bacteria can grow within the bulb ~ you don’t want to irrigate the ear with those! While they can be boiled, they are also relatively inexpensive and easily available, so frequent replacement is not a bad idea.
  • Use only warm water /fluids in the ear (about body temperature or just above body temperature is good). Cold fluids will make the person dizzy and possibly nauseous!
  • If using drops first, put the bottle in warm water or rub it between your hands a few minutes (as if rubbing hands together to warm them, but with the bottle between the hands). Don’t overheat the fluid and risk burning the canal!
  • Have the child stand in the tub or shower.
  • Pull up and back gently on the outer ear to straighten out the canal.
  • Aim the tip slightly up and back so the water will run along the roof of the canal and back along the floor. Do NOT aim straight back or the water will hit the eardrum directly and can impact hearing.
  • Don’t push the water too fast ~ a slow gentle irrigation will be better tolerated. If they complain, recheck the angle and push slower. If complaining continues, bring them to the office to let us do it to be sure there isn’t more to the story.
  • Refill the syringe and repeat as needed until the wax is removed.
  • Use a soft cloth to grab any wax you can see and dry the ear when done. Some people like to use a hair dryer set on low to dry the canal. Just be sure to not burn the skin!
  • If wax continues to be a problem, we can remove it in the office with one of two methods:
  • After inspecting the ear canal carefully with an otoscope (or as I call it with the kids: my magic flashlight), we can use a curette (looks like a spoon or a loop depending on provider’s preference and wax type) to go behind the wax and pull it out.

This is often the fastest method in the office, but is not always possible if the wax is too flaky or impacted into the canal leaving no room for the curette to pass behind the wax. It should only be done by trained professionals… don’t attempt this at home!

  • If the wax is plugging up too much of the canal, the canal is very tender, or if the wax is particularly flaky and breaks on contact with the loop, we will let the ear soak in a peroxide solution then irrigate with warm water.

This process takes longer but is better tolerated by many kids and they think it is fun to “shower their ear”. We often must follow this with the curette to get the softened wax completely out.

My biggest tips:

  • Never use cotton tipped swabs, pipe cleaners, pencils, fingernails, or anything else that is solid to clean the ear! (Note: I still don’t recommend them if the package says “safe” ~ they aren’t!)
  • Don’t put liquid in the ear canal if there is a hole in the ear drum (tubes are included in this). Pus draining from the ear is a sign that there might be a hole.
  • Ear candles are not a safe solution. Burns are too big of a risk!
  • The ear canal is very sensitive, especially if wax buildup has been there a while and has caused an infection of the skin in the canal. Anything put into the ear can increase any pre-existing pain.
  • If the skin is friable from prolonged wax and/or infection there is often bleeding with cleaning. If you notice this at home, your child should have the ears evaluated in our office.
  • We will look for holes in the ear drum, scratches on the skin in the canal, and signs of infection needing antibiotic.
  • Some people who suffer from itchy ears can help themselves by NOT cleaning their ears so much!
  • Earwax usually can be left alone. Only try to clean it out if there are signs of problems with it (ear pain, ringing in the ears, decreased hearing, etc).
  • If kids don’t tolerate removal with the methods above, bring them in for us to take a good look. There might be more to the story that needs to be addressed.
  • If there is significant ear pain, pus or bleeding from the ear, or an object in the ear, bring your child in to the office to have us assess and treat.
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10 Tips To Help Your Child Make The Medicine Go Down

Written by Denise Somsak MD
Explain that medicine needs to be taken to make your child feel better.  Around the age of three years old, this explanation will have much more meaning and may increase ease of compliance. In the words of Yoda, “Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.”  They sense your compassion and conviction.  You don’t need luck.
  1. Ask your doctor before you start.  Better to avoid screaming than to manage it.  Some kids do better with liquid others chewable.  Many medications can be crushed and put in food.  Pharmacist can add flavoring to liquid medications.  This is usually better than adding the medication to juice or milk because not all meds can be mixed in other beverages and more importantly, the child might taste it and refuse the rest leaving you with an even larger amount of liquid to get down.  Rectal medication is sometimes an option, but few medications other than tylenol, anti-emetics and seizure medications are made for this route.
  2. Know you can.  There is no try.  Only Do or Do Not.
  3. You need a syringe.  No, not to give the child a shot.  An empty syringe that you can fill with the correct amount of medicine.  The pharmacy should have given you one.  Always ask especially for children less than 3 years old.
  4. Make sure the child is not afraid of the syringe.  Let him hold it.  Fill it with water and let him sip it and drip it into his hand.
  5. If the child will try a little medication willingly, give a little more.  If the Force is with you, that’s all it takes.
  6. If the child does not like it, promise a chocolate milk chaser or some other highly desired treat that the child can only earn after the medication and at absolutely no other time.  This technique only works for children who can understand cause and effect and delayed gratification, about 2.5 to 3 years old and up.
  7. If the child spits the medicine back at you immediately or vomits within 10 minutes, you need to repeat the dose.  Call your doctor with variations on this theme.
  8. To avoid the spitting, lie the child on her back.  You might need a holder to steady her head.  Slowly drop the medicine in a little at a time by putting the syringe at the back of the throat, but DO NOT GAG the poor girl.  A few drops at a time even during crying should get the job done.  It will feel like forever, but I promise you it is less than a minute.  She might cough a little.  Go slow.
  9. If she will not open her mouth, gently hold her nose until she does.
  10. Do not reward the child for protesting.  In other words, refusing and protesting the first dose should not mean that he never has to take it again.  In the words of Mary Poppins, “Be firm but kind.”

Always keep medicine safely out of the reach of children and never confuse them by calling medication candy.  Apparently this is confusing enough according to recent research presented at the National AAP conference which showed that both kindergartners and teachers had difficulty telling the two apart.

 

Dr. Somsak was born and raised in the heartland. She describes herself as a no frills, practical gal.  She writes regularly at http://www.pensivepediatrician.com