How and When to Clean Your Child’s Ears


nicole-freedman-author-banner-033114 When I worked in pediatric primary care, one of the biggest ear concerns that I heard from parents was about the presence of wax in their child’s ears and how to clean ears. While earwax is not pleasant to look at, it’s harmless and good for your ears! Everyone knows that ears are responsible for allowing us to hear, but did you also know that the very inner part of your ear is responsible for maintaining balance? Ears serve a very important function for our bodies, so it’s important to take care of them. In this blog post, I hope to take some of the mystery out of ear care.

Anatomy of our earsHow and When to Clean Your Child’s Ears

Before we dive in to how to properly care for your child’s ears, it helps to know how the ear is constructed. Ears are divided into three main parts:

  1. Outer ear, which is the fleshy external part made of cartilage (also called the pinna) that we can see. This includes the canal inside that leads up to the eardrum and is responsible for directing sound to the middle ear. When people talk about cleaning the ears, they are referring to the pinna as well as the ear canal.
  2. Middle ear, which is composed of the eardrum that creates vibrations, which will be transmitted into sound.
  3. Inner ear, which is responsible for converting vibrations from the middle ear into nerve impulses that are sent to the brain and allow us to hear sound. The inner ear also regulates our balance.

Ear wax helps

Earwax, also known as cerumen, is produced in the ear canal. As I mentioned earlier, it is quite helpful! Earwax contains enzymes that help prevent bacteria and fungus from growing in the ear. It creates a barrier to protect the ear canal from water. Earwax also traps dust and dirt particles that enter the ear. Wax normally regulates itself by migrating from the inside of the ear canal to the outside on its own. Wax only needs to be removed from the ear for two reasons:

  1. When a doctor needs to move ear wax out of the way to see the eardrum
  2. When it is so tightly packed and is compromising hearing

Do not put anything inside your child’s ear canal (this includes cotton swabs). Soft objects even like cotton swamps can puncture an ear drum. You can also push wax further toward the eardrum, causing it to clump together and block hearing.

Cleaning your child’s earsHow and When to Clean Your Child’s Ears

Here are helpful tips to use when it comes time clean your child’s ears at home.

  • Use a cloth or tissue to wipe away any wax that has migrated out of the ear canal.
  • To dry ears after a bath or a shower, instruct your child tilt their ear to one side against a towel, and then tilt their head to the other, allowing water to drip out on its own.
  • Unfortunately kids sometimes put little things in their ear canals such as beads, beans, little toys or even play dough. Never put anything in your child’s ear canal to remove a foreign body. Removal should only be attempted by a professional with the proper equipment such as your child’s pediatrician or a pediatric ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. It’s good to have a conversation with young children about never putting anything inside their ears.
  • Remind your preteen or teenager to clean behind their ears with soap and warm water to remove oil and dirt that can cause acne back there.
  • If you think too much ear wax is causing your child to have difficulty hearing, discuss this with your child’s pediatrician or a pediatric ENT. There are over the counter products available to dissolve wax but it is best to discuss what is best with your child’s doctor.
  • Refrain from using cotton swabs in your own ears, particularly in front of your child. Kids like to mimic what parents (and other adults) do and you certainly don’t want to teach your child that it is okay to put anything in their ear or a sibling’s ear.

There is an old saying that goes, “Never put anything smaller than your elbow inside your ear or your child’s.” It’s obvious this is an impossible action in itself, but the saying makes sense because you don’t want to cause ear wax build up or damage in your child’s ears. If you know of parents that use cotton swabs as part of their ear hygiene for their family, forward this blog post to them. Let’s keep ears clean and healthy.