Ear Irrigation (Ear Lavage)
What is ear irrigation (ear lavage)?
Ear irrigation, also known as ear lavage, is a procedure to remove ear wax that can build up in the ear canal and block part or all of it. Ear wax, or cerumen, is a substance with antibacterial properties made by glands in your outer ears. It mixes with dead cells and hair to form a barrier that protects the middle and inner ear from dirt and debris.
If you have too much ear wax, it can be removed either by lavage—flushing out the wax with liquid—or using drops to soften the wax so it can be removed with an instrument, which should only be done by a medical professional. You can do ear lavage at home, but if not done properly, you can damage your eardrum, so follow directions carefully.
Why is ear irrigation (ear lavage) performed?
Your ears are designed to be self-cleaning, pushing the wax out as you move your jaw, which then dries and flakes off. However, in some people the wax builds up and can block the ear canal. It can affect anyone, but people who wear ear plugs or ear buds a lot, people with narrow ear canals, and children or older adults are more likely to have excess wax. When there is too much wax, you may have symptoms including:
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ear)
Ear lavage can address these symptoms. It can be done by a medical professional or at home. If it is not done correctly, it can damage your hearing, so do not do ear lavage yourself if your eardrum may have a hole in it (perforated eardrum), you have had recent ear surgery, or if your ear is itching, which could indicate infection. Doctors also use ear irrigation to remove foreign objects in the ear, such as sand or bugs.
Who performs ear irrigation (ear lavage)?
If you do not have symptoms that indicate you should see a medical provider, you can do ear lavage at home. If you cannot remove the ear wax or are concerned about damaging your ears, your primary care physician or other medical professional can also perform ear irrigation. If the wax is severely impacted, your doctor can refer you to an otolaryngologist—an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist, who can remove impacted ear wax.
How is ear irrigation (ear lavage) performed?
There are several ways to perform ear lavage. Medical professionals may put some drops to soften the wax into your ear first, and then use an instrument or specially designed syringe to slowly inject warm water or a saline solution into your ear, and rinse out the wax. The provider will check the ear with an otoscope to see that the wax is gone and the canal is clear. If wax remains after ear lavage, your provider can use an instrument called a curette to remove the remainder of it.
You can choose to do your own ear lavage if you don’t have symptoms of infection or any possibility of a hole in your eardrum. You can soften the wax first by using a clean dropper to gently put a few drops of a softening agent into your ear. You can use:
Hydrogen peroxide or peroxide-based ear drops
- Saline solution
After putting in the drops, lie on your side for a few minutes for the softening agent to work. To irrigate, have a small bowl or towel nearby to catch drainage from your ear. Turn your head so the affected ear faces the bowl or sink.
Pull your ear gently back and up and use a syringe, with no needle, filled with tepid water to inject water gently into your ear. You can also soak a cotton ball and let the solution drip into the ear. The wax and water should begin to drain out. It may take several attempts to remove the wax, but if you don’t succeed after three or four tries, don’t continue as it may irritate your ear.
Commercial ear wax removal kits are available, but speak to your medical provider before using one as some contain some harsh ingredients that may irritate your ear.
After your ear lavage, dry your ear gently but thoroughly with a clean towel.
What to expect the day of your ear irrigation (ear lavage)
There is no special preparation required if a medical provider performs your lavage, but it’s important not to try to remove excess ear wax yourself with an instrument or cotton swabs. Doctors say to never put anything smaller than your elbow into your ear, a joke to remind people not to insert anything into the ear canal that could damage it.
What are the risks and potential complications of ear irrigation (ear lavage)?
In rare cases, earwax removal causes the following complications:
Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa)
Temporary hearing loss
Tinnitus or ringing in the ears
- Water in the ear canal
Different removal methods have different risks for these complications, as do certain health conditions, such as diabetes. Talk with your healthcare provider about risks that may apply to you.
Reducing the Risk of Complications
Ears usually maintain themselves, but you can help protect them by the following:
Use a clean washcloth to wipe and clean the outside of your ears.
- Never put cotton swabs or any other small objects into your ears. You can use cotton swabs or the corner of a towel to dry the external parts of the ears.
Don’t overuse earplugs or earbuds.
- Don’t use ear candling, which involves a lit candle, to remove earwax. You could burn your ear or face.
How do I prepare for ear irrigation (ear lavage)?
If you go to a medical professional for ear lavage, you don’t need to prepare, but your provider will confirm the presence of excess wax. Make sure to tell your doctor about any ear pain, eardrum damage or hearing difficulties. Your doctor may ask you about drainage, earaches, hearing issues, and whether your symptoms come and go or are continuous.
What can I expect after ear irrigation (ear lavage)?
Ear lavage is usually a simple procedure with little recovery time, but you may experience some temporary dizziness or ringing in your ears.
How long will it take to recover?
Because cerumen protects your ears, they will be more vulnerable to infection after lavage until they make more wax. You should keep your ear dry for five days or as long as your provider indicates. Do not put anything in your ear. If you experience pain, dizziness, a change in hearing, or notice discharge, call your provider.
Do not swim and do not let water get in your ear if you shower for as long as your provider advises. Follow your provider’s advice carefully in order not to damage your hearing.
Will I feel pain?
You might feel some mild discomfort or your ears might feel sensitive after ear lavage. Your provider can give you ointment to use for a few days to help with any discomfort.
When should I call my doctor?
Call your doctor if you experience pain, drainage or a change in hearing after ear lavage. If you have discharge that contains white or greenish pus, blood, or your earwax looks very dark or black, contact your healthcare provider promptly.
There is a chance of certain side effects after lavage like dizziness or ringing in the ears. Your ear might also feel irritated or itchy, but these effects should only last a short time. Avoid rubbing your ears.
If excess wax is affecting your hearing, ear lavage can restore it. Your ears usually keep themselves clean, but if you are concerned about excess ear wax, you can carefully try removing it at home or go see your primary care provider.