“Babies better be clean“, my granny used to say. My mum used to add, “everybody should be clean“.
They are not wrong. However, when it comes to cleaning the ears, you need to leave them alone unless they are smelly. Trust me, I am a doctor.
But if you don’t believe me, here is a health information leaflet by the National Health Services, UK. The guidelines state in block letters to avoid any kind of prodding the ear with anything at all. “But there is ear wax all over it“, you will say. Well, let us see what the fuss is all about.
The anatomy of ear
Ear, as you know, is the main organ for hearing. One can hear using the bone behind the ear as well. But that needs hearing aids, something beyond the scope of this article. The visible part of the ear is called the external ear. It is something akin to a funnel – it concentrates the sound that travels inside the ear.
There is a small ear canal or external auditory meatus, about 15-24 mm in length, that reaches the adult average of 25 mm as they grow up. It is a bit straight in children and curves a bit as they grow up. This is the place where you will find ear wax, and as the child grows up, many fantastic things depending on your child’s imagination. (When I was 4, I inserted a ball bearing inside my ear. My mum took me to 2 different doctors to get it removed. The second one made a smart use of a magnet. This is not a story encouraging your children to explore their creativity. This is just to show that kids can do stupid things at times.)
The ear canal is separated from the middle year by a delicate membrane known as the ear drum. This is the part that moves when sound hits it, much like a drum. Different sounds lead to different movements. There is a bone, Malleus, attached to the ear drum from inside. There are two more bones that are connected to this, and it forms a chain, so to say. As the sound falls on the eardrum, the bones either magnify it or diminish it and conduct the vibrations to the inner ear. The inner ear is where the magic happens and the sound is deciphered.
Where does ear wax fit in?
Believe it or not, ear wax is good. It is secreted to keep the canal clean. It is produced in the ear canal and is gently pushed out by the movements of the jaw. It traps dirt thereby keeping the canal clean. It falls out on its own accord after a few days. Sure, it looks dirty and shabby, but so do so many other things in the world. It does not mean we get rid of them, right?
What to avoid doing
Here are the tips based on the recommendations by Cambridgeshire Community Services NHS Trust.
- If there is dirt on the external ear, clean it with a soft cloth dampened with water. Avoid soap. Soap will erode the wax and might expose the ear to noxious agents.
- If you are washing the baby’s ear on the inside, use a damp cotton ball. Avoid soap.
- Pat the ears dry after that.
Do not, for the love of God, try to clean the wax off.
- DON’T poke it with your finger
- DON’T poke it with a cotton bud
- DON’T try a washcloth
- DON’T use anything sharp
If you do, you risk injuring the ear. You might just push the wax inside with all the dirt trapped. This may cause infection. You might have to consult an ear specialist then. From a personal experience, let me tell you, it is not pleasant for the baby.
What is not normal then?
Even black ear wax is normal, as long as it is not smelling. However, some infections of the ear can cause a discharge from the ear. So if you see anything from these in your baby’s ear while inspecting it, please visit an Otorhinolaryngologist.
- Any kind of discharge: clear sticky fluid to really smelling green one.
- Any sign of blood
- Marks of injury
- Any foreign object
- Just frank putrid smell coming from the ear
Did I mention that nose and ear are internally connected? So it could be anything.
Mums and dads, please listen to my plea and resist the temptation to clean your baby’s ears. Repeat with me,” Wax is good, as long as it does not smell funny”
Also read: Yelling at your kids just doesn’t work and here’s why
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