Waxing philosophically: ear wax and eew

Babies are gooey. Spew tends to dribble out of every orifice and the ear is no exception. Devin’s mother tipped her four month old baby’s head sideways in the office the other day and asked me what to do about the oily, yellow wax smeared around the opening of his ear canal.


Some say wax evolved to help keep bugs and other debris from reaching deep into our ear canals. Case in point: one of my least favorite memories during residency was when I picked out pieces of a cockroach entrapped in the wax of a child’s ear. The amount of wax you see on the outside is not indicative of the actual amount inside the ear canal. Chances are, the wax is not hard and does not block the ear drum.  Even if there is a large amount of wax, it is unlikely to greatly affect a baby’s hearing. Equally normal is that some babies and children don’t seem to produce any ear wax. If you are concerned about your child’s ear wax, have your pediatrician take a peek with a light. 


Despite the copious amount of wax on the outside, Devin’s ear canals were clear. “But the wax is simply disgusting,” said Devin’s mom, “Can I clean his ears? “


“Yes”, I answered. “Wipe off what you see, doesn’t matter if you use a wash cloth or cotton swab.  The special shaped cotton swabs with the safety tips are unnecessary. Anything you see is fair game.  Rest assured, you will not go too deeply into the ear canal if you only scrape off what is visible.” Dr. Kardos goes one step further and tells her patients: if you can get the wax with a wash cloth, it’s fair game. Otherwise, leave it alone.


Now suppose your pediatrician does say the wax should be removed. Place an over-the-counter solution such as Debrox in the ears (children and adults can use the same formulation) – three to four drops one or two times a day (during sleep is easiest for babies and toddlers) for a few days. The solution softens wax.  For maintenance, mineral oil and olive oil are favorite remedies. Place one drop daily in ears. In the office some pediatricians can use a water irrigation system (like a water squirter in your ear) to wash out the wax. The worst side effect is that the child’s shirt sometimes gets wet. Irrigation is a very effective for removing wax  in a school-aged or teenaged child who complains of difficulty hearing.


If you find you are constantly cleaning your baby’s waxy ears, take heart. At least there won’t be any roaches “bugging” them.


Naline Lai, MD with Julie Kardos, MD

©2011 Two Peds in a Pod®