What Causes Earwax in Babies and how to clean it?

What Causes Earwax in Babies and how to clean it

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In mammals and humans, the ear naturally produces a waxy substance called the cerumen, which we commonly refer to as earwax.

Cleaning or clearing earwax in adults and kids is easier compared to cleaning earwax in infants, as their ear canal is delicate and must be handled with care. That said, excessive ear wax formation makes cleaning essential, which can be challenging. So how does one keep a baby’s ear clean of earwax?

Read this MomJunction article for the information you need about earwax in babies and ways to attend to it.

Why Does A Baby Have Earwax?

Earwax is naturally produced by the outer ear canal, which lies between the earlobe and the eardrum of the middle ear (1). It may seem like an unnecessary biological waste, but has its uses. Some of them are mentioned here (2):

  • Waterproofs the ear canal
  • Acts as a sticky trap for dust and insects
  • Lubricates the ear canal to prevent irritation
  • Ear wax is made of compounds that have antibacterial and antifungal properties

[ Read: Ear Infection In Babies ]

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Can Earwax Cause Problems In Babies?

Yes, but only when it gets hard and impacted. Ear wax gradually moves to the opening of the ear and sheds itself in small quantities. Bathing is enough to loosen the wax and get it out. But in some cases, hardened earwax that lodges too deep into the ear canal can create problems for the infant.

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What Causes Earwax Buildup In Babies?

There is no single reason for earwax buildup in infants. The following, however, are a few common causes of earwax complications among infants (3):

  • Frequent cotton swab use: Cotton swabs, also called cotton buds, cotton tips, or Q-tips, are not ideal for removing earwax, and medical experts recommend against its use (4). A cotton bud can push the earwax deep into the ear canal causing it to get stuck.
  • Pushing objects into the ear canal: Putting objects in the baby’s ear canal pushes the earwax deeper.
  • Repeatedly insertion of finger into ear canal: A baby’s ear canal is narrow and small. Putting a finger inside it frequently can pack the earwax within. Therefore, never use your finger to clean the baby’s ear and discourage the infant from sticking their finger into the ear repeatedly.
  • Extended use of hearing aids or earplugs: Hearing aids and earplugs block the entrance of the ear canal, which prevents the wax from shedding. If your baby wears a hearing aid or ear plugs for several hours in a day, then he/she can be at the risk of developing hardened ear wax.
  • Excess earwax secretion: About 5% of children suffer from the condition of excess earwax secretion, which can cause more wax accumulation than the ear can shed naturally.

Earwax secretion may seem like a trivial thing, but infants and toddlers can display symptoms of the condition.

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What Are The Symptoms Of Excess Earwax Buildup In Babies?

Accumulation of earwax in the ear can lead to symptoms including (5):

  • The baby will rub or pull the ear more often than usual.
  • Older infants and toddlers may point at their ear to indicate that something is wrong with it. Ear wax can harden and cause the sensation of something being stuck within the ear canal.
  • Earwax impaction can obstruct the ear canal, causing hearing difficulties.
  • If the earwax accumulation is very severe, you may even see a bit of hardened wax sticking out from the ear canal of the baby.
  • Severe symptoms of earwax accumulation include pain, fussiness, and sometimes even dizziness.

Take your baby to a doctor if any of these symptoms are evident. Excess hardened earwax can increase pressure on the eardrum, causing further complications.

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How Is Excess Earwax In Babies Removed?

A doctor will use the following methods to get rid of excessive wax from the ear.

  • Ear drops, which you have to administer at least once in a day to soften the earwax and make it shed. The number of drops and the duration of treatment depends on the extent of the earwax accumulation. You will need to make the baby lie down, turn the affected ear upwards, and pour the drops.

Hold the lying position for a few minutes before letting the baby sit up. Loosened earwax will fall out on its own and should not be prodded using a finger or cotton bud. Earwax-softening drops are available over-the-counter too, but one must never use them for children below the age of six years unless prescribed or advised by the doctor.

  • Manual earwax removal may be necessary if the earwax is stubbornly hard. Ear, Nose, Throat (ENT) doctors have a specialized set of tools to safely extract the earwax manually. The child has to be still for the procedure so a parent will have to hold the baby. Very rarely when the infant is unable to lie still, or if the earwax is very hard to cause pain during extraction that the doctor may consider using general anesthesia to the baby.

In case the baby already had an infection within the ear canal, the doctor may prescribe an antibiotic after the earwax removal procedure.

[ Read: Home Remedies To Treat Cold In Babies ]

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How To Regularly Clean Baby Ear Wax?

Ideally, earwax does not require removal. But if the wax is thick and hardened, consult a doctor about it.

Never clean a baby’s earwax at home using a cotton bud or ear drops. You must only clean the outer ear using a soft cloth soaked in warm water. Run the cloth around the rims of the external ear and avoid alleged ear cleaning techniques such as ear flushing, pouring hydrogen peroxide, mineral oil, etc. into the ear canal. It can complicate the condition.

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How To Prevent Earwax Problems In Babies?

Preventing earwax problems in babies is easy, and all you have to do is observe the following steps and practices:

  • Never use cotton swabs: Cotton swabs are widely discouraged for use by medical professionals because they push the earwax deeper into the ear canal. Since the ear canal has a self-cleaning property, there is no need to manually remove the earwax. Also, the wax serves a purpose and is not the body’s waste product.
  • Do not try removing earwax with finger or object: If you see earwax accumulated inside your baby’s ear, then do not try picking it out. You may cause the wax to slide deeper while also increasing the risk of eardrum injury.
  • Remove hearing aids for some time: If your baby wears hearing aids, then take them off for some time every day. It will allow shedding of earwax and prevents accumulation. Limit earplug usage, if you’ve been using them for the baby for some reason.
  • Check ears regularly: It is a good idea to check your baby’s ears every time after a bath. It allows you to notice any early accumulation of earwax inside the ear canal. These observations are even more essential when the baby wears hearing aids.

Taking the baby to the doctor for a checkup can also help identify if the problem is due to earwax or an infection.

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How To Differentiate Between Earwax Buildup And Ear Infection?

A baby with an ear infection would display symptoms similar to that of earwax accumulation. However, ear infections also cause other symptoms such as fever, fluid discharge from the ear, earache, poor appetite, and unexplained crying with fussiness (6) (7). The earwax is also smelly in the case of an infection.

Check the ear canal for yellowish-brown spots, which is the natural color of wax. If you notice redness, dampness, yellowish discharge, then it is quite likely to be an ear infection.

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Remember that the ear canal can take care of cleaning away the excess earwax and there is no need to rid the ears of earwax manually. Just be watchful of any signs of earwax accumulation and consult a doctor to ensure that it does not negatively impact the baby’s health.

[ Read: When Does A Baby Start To Hear? ]

Have you encountered problems with baby’s earwax? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

References:

1. Reviewed by P Barth; Dealing With Earwax; KidsHealth
2. The health benefits and dangers of earwax, from the Harvard Health Letter; Harvard Health
3. Earwax Buildup; Schmitt Pediatric Guidelines LLC
4. Earwax; The University of Texas at Austin
5. B Schmitt; Earwax Buildup; FAAP
6. B Schmitt; Ear – Pulling At or Rubbing; FAAP
7. Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection); The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
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Rohit Garoo

Rohit Garoo took writing as a profession right after finishing his MBA in Marketing. Earlier he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Botany & Zoology from the autonomous St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai. Rohit has also done a Stanford University certification course on breastfeeding. This botanist-zoologist turned writer excels at life sciences, and at MomJunction he writes everything about pediatrics and maternal care. In between writing and being overly curious, he spends time cooking, reading, and playing video games. LinkedIn profile – linkedin.com/in/rohit-garoo-263115aa
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