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Earwax Problems

Can earwax interfere with my child's hearing?

Only if there's a heavy buildup of it. Earwax serves to protect the ear canal and the paper-thin eardrum from dirt and germs, but if it accumulates it can cause temporary hearing loss. The tip-offs include a hard, waxy plug in your child's ear and complaints of ear pain.

If your child has difficulty hearing, he or she might have fluid or an infection behind the eardrum rather than a waxy buildup. Consult your pediatrician.

What can I do about a buildup of earwax?

It's best to let your pediatrician treat the problem if your child is younger than 12. If you're dealing with a teenager, you can try softening the wax with a few drops of mineral oil, olive oil, or commercial earwax fluid twice a day for several days. Ear drops such as carbamide peroxide (Debrox) bubble out wax; triethanolamine polypeptide (Cerumenex) softens it. Use these ear drops periodically every three to four weeks. Having your child lie with his head on a heating pad can help soften stubborn wax, too.

Never use an ear syringe to flush out a child's ear and dislodge the wax: this could damage the eardrum.

A few precautions: Don't attempt to soften the wax in your child's ear if he has ear pain, cold symptoms, or ear-ventilation tubes, or if his eardrum has even been punctured. Instead, contact your pediatrician. You should also get in touch with the doctor if the hearing loss continues or if you don't succeed in removing the hardened wax.

Is the drainage from my child's ear related to earwax?

Possibly. If the fluid is yellow-brown, feels tacky, and drains painlessly, it's probably earwax that has worked its way out to the external ear. A cloudy white discharge, on the other hand, can mean an ear infection. This fluid may be draining through a small hole in the eardrum, or from ear-ventilation tubes in a child with a history of chronic ear infections. Blood or foul-smelling discharge can signal an infection caused by a foreign body (like a bead or pea) stuck into the ear by a young child. Report any bleeding inside the ear to your pediatrician.

How can I prevent earwax problems?

For starters, never use a cotton-tipped swab to clean your child's ears or to remove wax. This only packs earwax deep into the ear canal, where it's difficult -- and dangerous -- to remove; a cotton-tipped swab can also puncture an eardrum. Remember that everyone has earwax; it's not a sign of poor hygiene. To clean your child's ears, simply wipe the outside of each ear with a warm washcloth. And teach your child never to put anything smaller than his elbow in his ear.

Further Resources

Robert H. Pantell M.D., James F. Fries M.D., Donald M. Vickery M.D., Taking Care of Your Child: A Parent's Illustrated Guide to Complete Medical Care. Da Capo Lifelong Books. 2009.

References

Schmitt, Barton D., M.d. F.A.A.P. Your Child's Health, revised edition. New York: Bantam, 2005.

Schiff, Donald, M.D. F.A.A.P., editor. Guide to Your Child's Symptoms. Random House. 1999.

Mayo Clinic. Earwax blockage. August 2009. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/earwax-blockage/DS00052

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