A foreign object in the ear can cause pain, infection and hearing loss. Usually you know if an object is stuck in your ear, but small children may not be aware of it.

If an object becomes lodged in the ear:

  • Don’t probe the ear with a tool such as a cotton swab or matchstick. You risk pushing the object farther in and damaging the ear.
  • Remove the object if possible. If the object is clearly visible, pliable and can be grasped easily with tweezers, gently remove it.
  • Try using gravity. Tilt the head to the affected side to try to dislodge the object.
  • Try using oil for an insect. If the foreign object is an insect, tilt the person’s head so that the ear with the insect is upward. Try to float the insect out by pouring mineral oil, olive oil or baby oil into the ear. The oil should be warm, but not hot. Don’t use oil to remove an object other than an insect. Don’t use this method for a child if ear tubes are in place or if you think the eardrum may be perforated. Signs and symptoms of a perforated eardrum are pain, bleeding or discharge from the ear.
  • Try washing the object out. Use a rubber-bulb ear syringe and warm water to irrigate the object out of the canal, again provided no ear tubes are in place and you don’t suspect the eardrum is perforated.

If these methods fail or the person continues to experience pain, discharge from the ear canal, reduced hearing or a sensation of something lodged in the ear, seek medical assistance.

What are some other types of ear emergencies?

  • Ruptured tympanic membrane (eardrum) can be a result of foreign bodies, middle ear infection, or pressure trauma to the ear. Often the patient feels pain, notices a thin bloody discharge from the ear, and has a decreased sense of hearing. If a person experiences these symptoms and thinks the eardrum may be ruptured or damaged, keep the ear dry, and seek medical care. Do not place cotton swabs, liquids, or other objects in ear.
  • Acute otitis externa (swimmer’s ear) is an infection of the outer ear canal that is usually caused by irritation of the canal skin that is made worse by water remaining in the ear canal after swimming or bathing. Cellulitis (skin infection) causes the ear canal to turn red and swell. The ear becomes very painful and a thin yellow fluid (infected pus) comes out of the canal. Some patients experience pain with mouth opening and chewing because of inflammation in the ear canal. The infection can spread to the side of the face or the lymph glands in the neck. Treatment of swimmer’s ear includes antibiotic drops and, in severe cases, IV or oral antibiotics.
  • Earwax impaction is usually a harmless cause of decreased hearing. Wax is formed in the ear canals naturally. Individuals who over-aggressively clean their ears with cotton swabs can push wax further into the canal, impacting (compressing) it against the ear drum. Over-the-counter (OTC) products, like carbamide peroxide (Auro, Debrox, Murine Earwax Drops) can be used to clean the ear regularly. If the wax impaction is causing pain, decreased hearing or dizziness, a doctor can irrigate (flush) the wax out of the ear gently with warm water and peroxide. If a person has chronic problems with earwax buildup, discuss long-term solutions with an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist (an otolaryngologist).