Foreign Objects or Insects in the Ear: Symptoms, Causes, and Remedies
John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.
William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.
- How common is this problem, and is it serious?
- What types of items get stuck in the ear (causes)?
- How can you tell if you have something foreign in your ear (signs and symptoms)?
- Should I try to remove the object from the ear myself?
- When should I call a doctor or other health care professional if I have something foreign in my ear?
- How can a doctor or other health care professional tell if there's something in my ear (tests and diagnosis)?
- What should I do if I can't get the object out?
- What are some other types of ear emergencies?
- Find a local Ear, Nose, & Throat Doctor in your town
How common is this problem, and is it serious?
Foreign objects in the ear are common reasons for emergency room visits, especially in children. The majority of these things are harmless. Some are extremely uncomfortable (insects or sharp objects) and some can rapidly produce an infection (food or organic matter) requiring emergency treatment. If a you aren't sure of the potential for harm of the foreign body, seek medical care immediately.
What types of items get stuck in the ear (causes)?
Most objects that get stuck in the ear canal are placed there by the person themselves. Children who are curious about their bodies and interesting objects, are the group most often has this problem (children aged 9 months to 8 years).
The most common things they put in their ears include:
- Food (especially beans)
- Cotton swabs
- Rubber erasers
- Small toys
- Small shells
Ear wax: Ear wax is a naturally occurring substance in the ear canal but can become a problem when it builds up to the point that it clogs the ear canal, and causes hearing loss or pain. Overuse of cotton swabs such as Q-tips to clean the ear can actually push wax and skin cell debris further into the canal and pack it against the eardrum causing symptoms.
Insects: Insects can also fly or crawl into the ear canal. Usually this happens while sleeping on the floor or outdoors (for example, camping). This is often a frightening and dramatic event as the insect's buzzing and movement is very loud and sometimes painful.
How can you tell if you have something foreign in your ear (signs and symptoms)?
Pain, inflammation, and irritation: The skin in the ear canal and the eardrum is very sensitive. Any inflammation or injury is usually readily apparent due to pain or irritation.
In young children: The diagnosis can be challenging in young children who are not old enough to verbalize their pain. Redness, swelling, or discharge (blood, inflammatory fluid, or pus) are the main signs of injury to the ear. Small children often scratch or rub the ear repeatedly.
Ear wax impaction: If impacted earwax is the cause you may experience symptoms of a "fullness" or pressure, and a decrease in hearing on the affected side. In extreme cases, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, or unsteady walking results from inflammation of the ear or build-up of pressure on the eardrum causing dysfunction of their middle ear.
Should I try to remove the object from the ear myself?
If the item is very small you can try to gently shake it out. Pulling the back of the ear (the pinna) gently toward the back of the head straightens out the ear canal and the foreign body may roll or slide out with a gentle shake of the ear. Do not strike your head on the opposite side to try to dislodge the stuck item.
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