never stick anything smaller than your elbow into your ear
March 22, 2012 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Historically I have a bad habit of using q-tips to clean deeply into my ear. I am now dealing with my second ear infection in under a year. I am positive these two facts are directly related. How do I break my bad habit, and perform proper ear maintenance?

I constantly feel like there is a tiny bit of water in my ear. You know that feeling you get after you go swimming or take a shower, where you can feel some fullness in your ear and if you move your jaw you can hear the rumble of moisture against your eardrum? I feel that frequently, or my inner ear just feels itchy constantly. This prompts me to take a q-tip and dig around in my ear to try to clean it out, which I know is a Very Stupid Thing.

Last summer I got an ear infection bad enough that I had constant ringing in my ear for weeks and the ear canal was pretty much swollen shut so that I was deaf in one ear and in constant pain. I saw an ENT, he prescribed some antibiotics and ear drops, and after a few weeks it cleared up. I was good about not digging around in my ear for several months. Then the watery-ness and itchiness came back, I fell back into bad habits, and now I am on my second round of the same ear infection. I am currently on a prescription of Cipro, and the infection is clearing up.

Right at this moment I am sitting here and my ear is itching like crazy and I feel like I have water up against my ear drum again. I desperately want to shove a q-tip in there to clean it out, which I know is definitely the wrong-est thing I could possibly do.

So, how do I deal with itchiness in general and the sensation of moisture in my ear, while keeping to the standard advice of "never stick anything smaller than your elbow into your ear"? I know that the real issue is much more about habits than physical ailments. Please help me replace my bad habits with successful good habits.
posted by Lokheed to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Use rolled up toilet paper to attend to your ears, not a little stick.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:58 AM on March 22, 2012

If you're dealing with a watery-feeling, itchy ear, you may want to try a decongestant and some Benadryl.
posted by kate blank at 8:02 AM on March 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Put a piece of tissue paper at the opening of your ear and chew some gum.

Also, Minute Clinic type places will clean your ears out for you.
posted by SMPA at 8:03 AM on March 22, 2012

They make a squeezy-bulb thing you can fill with warm water and squirt in your ear; it's meant to loosen and wash out excess wax. I got one at a drug store for no more than six bucks. I find that doing that, and then a q-tip SHALLOWLY into the ear, takes care of everything.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:07 AM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was told by my ear doctor to never use q-tips, after I came in for a cleaning. Some people get wax build up in their ear and some don't, and using q-tips only makes it worse if you're one of those people.

I actually got something similar to this, and it works miracles though.

I don't have to use it often (like once a year, at most), but if you use it right (with drops, irrigation, etc), it will completely clear out wax from your ear canal. You're basically scraping along the edge of the ear canal, and pulling it loose. If you have anything impacted down there, it'll come out in one lump if you've softened it properly and irrigate.

I haven't actually had to go back for years and I used to have to go in every 18 months.
posted by empath at 8:07 AM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Stop keeping q-tips in your house.
posted by rtha at 8:08 AM on March 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

There's stuff called "swimmers ear" or " water free" or something like that available at CVS or similar places. It's basically rubbing alcohol and water but it breaks the surface tension of the water in your ear and will help with the stuck water feeling.
posted by raccoon409 at 8:08 AM on March 22, 2012

Seconding decongestant and Auro Dri or a similar product. Also ear wax removal done occasionally.

I have talked about this with an ENT because I also have the issues you mention, and he recommended the above. Also nasal rinsing, but that's a whole other story.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:13 AM on March 22, 2012

Then the watery-ness and itchiness came back, I fell back into bad habits,

This is the point at which you go back to the ENT.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:14 AM on March 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

"never stick anything smaller than your elbow into your ear"

This advice is not universal. Look into the Asian "ear pick" (known in Japanese as the mimikaki). Some use this little spoon to scrape excess water out of the ear canal, but I only use mine to scratch inner-ear itches. Its main purpose is apparently for removal of ear wax, buildup of which apparently varies by ethnic group.

Also, this daily Q-Tip user, who's never had an ear infection, is skeptical about your hypothesis of a linkage between the two.
posted by Rash at 8:16 AM on March 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I knew someone who (apparently) had a bit of water pressed against his eardrum with a little "cup" of wax (barf) holding it in place. He had a doctor remove the wax and release the water and he said it felt great after.

Can you have a doctor look into your ears to see if there is actually any water in there?

If the doctor finds there is no water/wax in there, you'll know that the sensation is actually something internal and cannot be resolved with q-tips. Perhaps that will help you resist the urge (knowing that it will not do any good). On the other hand, you'll have to figure out what to do about the internal problem, if there is one.
posted by cranberrymonger at 8:17 AM on March 22, 2012

I suspect this might be a correlation and not a causality thing. That is, when you are getting the terrible itchy feeling there is already something going on with your ear and you're on the path to ear infection whether or not you mess with it.

That said, there are many great ear cleaning options that are not qtips, though I myself am an unapologetic q-tip user. People have outlined good ones

- the squeezy bulb
- swimmers ear stuff [I swim, I get itchy ears that makes me crazy, this stuff usually works well]
- plain old hydrogen peroxide [use as directed, internet has directions]
- using decongestants to make sure it's not gunk behind your ear drum causing the problems
- gum and other ways to get your jaw moving.

It's possible you have really narrow eustachian tubes [I do] that mean that you can get stuff stuck in them that can feel like when you're on an airplane. So try also doing the valsalva maneuver to make sure that is not the weird ear pressure you're feeling. Otherwise I'd just toss out all of your q-tips, though next time you're at the doc's I'd ask them about the causal relationship because it's been my opinion that, warnings to the contrary, most people use q-tips for exactly this purpose.
posted by jessamyn at 8:31 AM on March 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

I have had similar problems but have found I can keep them under control by pouring a little bit of alcohol into each ear once a day (especially after showering when water may have gotten into my ears). I tilt my head and let it flow in and stay for a little while, then tilt my head the other way and let it flow out. I never use q-tips: they rip the thin skin inside the ear and greatly increase the chances of infections developing or getting worse.
posted by Paquda at 8:32 AM on March 22, 2012

For breaking the q-tip habit, I like hydrogen peroxide: use an eyedropper to put a few drops of peroxide (or a 50/50 mix with warm water to be safe) in your ear, lie on your side for five minutes, flip over, and repeat with the other ear while the first one drains. In addition to being a safer cleaning method, the peroxide will give your ears a slight tickly feeling, which feels good in about the same way that swabbing does.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:40 AM on March 22, 2012

To change habit: Substitute one behavior for another. Discover your daily 'trigger' for your "bad" behavior. Is the trigger time of day? Sequence for getting ready for work? Is it seeing the Q-Tipps? #1) Get rid of the trigger (& it may not be what your first thought it was)
#2) substitute a healthier behavior - your best idea or ideas here -
#3) give yourself a daily reward for your new good behavior

I take two clean q-tips and dip them into a small bottle of Swans Oil ( $2.00 for a years supply)
(Swans Oil is Olive Oil for external medical use and not cooking olive oil. Swans oil is at CVS
or Walgreens.)
One q-tip for the right ear one for the left ear to avoid cross contamination. And then I rub the ear canal with a bit of soothing oil with my head tilted to facilitate the oil getting into the ear. This stops itching, feeling of fullness', takes care of wax issues, I do NOT try to get anything OUT of the ear canal, just keep it 'feeling good'. Make sure you pay attention to your ears a little later in the day in case excess oil finds it way 'out and about'.

Maybe your 'reward' will be for not digging around "in" the ear canal but helping it to feel good. Good luck. I hope this helps.
posted by Mockinbrd at 8:52 AM on March 22, 2012

I used to have terribly itchy ears. I went through massive amounts of q-tips and they still didn't always help. For various reasons, it took me a really long time to realize that the problem was that my sinuses were a mess, which affected my ear canals. I started using a neti pot and took some decongestants, and that helped immensely with the horrible itchy ear feeling. I have since started working on the problems that were causing my sinuses to get so messed up, and now my ears feel even better. So you might go looking for what is causing your horribly itchy, uncomfortable ears instead of just trying to stop the behavior that is in response to that feeling.
posted by colfax at 9:06 AM on March 22, 2012

Go see your ENT or another ENT and describe your recurrent infections and your symptoms between infections.

I had a similar problem, and it turns out that I have eczema in my ear canal. My ENT says he sees it all the time, so it may be a matter of just explaining to your doctor that this keeps happening, so they stop treating it as a one-off case of swimmer's ear.

What happens is the skin of my ear canal randomly decides to get all inflamed and shed its outer layers, creating a weepy, gunky mess where bacteria and fungi can run rampant.

In addition to giving me antibiotic drops to clear up the current infection, my ENT prescribed an antifungal cream and instructed me to flush out my ears with a 50/50 mixture of vinegar and rubbing alcohol.

Note: while MetroidBaby's method is recommended to break up earwax, I was told specifically not to use hydrogen peroxide for swimmer's ear because it throws off the pH and encourages the growth of some bacteria and fungi.

The good news :) is that I get to use a Q-tip to apply the antifungal cream, and I was told specifically I should use a Q-tip regularly to clear out the old antifungal cream and dead skin gunk. (I cannot describe to you how happy this made me.)

I now use the antifungal cream once a week, and the vinegar/alcohol solution a couple times a week, and Q-tip whenever the hell I want. :) :) :) Every once in a while, one ear canal or the other will start to get cranky and then I use the cream 2x a week and the vinegar/alcohol daily to ward off infection until it settles down again. I haven't had a single recurrence of swimmer's ear since I started this program of treatment.

Before I got the proper diagnosis, everybody blamed me for the swimmer's ear: it was because I didn't dry my ears out after showering (WTF!? Do you get water in your ear canal when you shower? I sure as hell don't) or because of using Q-tips, but, really, no, just the skin in my ear canal sometimes decides to hate itself.

My struggle is to use only Q-tips. When my ear is in a bad mood, it gets outrageously itchy and it takes every ounce of self control not to jam the nearest ear-canal-sized object in there and scratch. But that would introduce bacteria and fungi and that would be a bad idea, and as you well know swimmer's ear sucks very very bad, so I try very hard not to.
posted by BrashTech at 9:10 AM on March 22, 2012

I'll add a heart second to EmpressCallipygos' suggestion of an ear bulb syringe.
posted by buggzzee23 at 9:10 AM on March 22, 2012

Just to be clear here, the loop thing and the picks you will find in Japanese etc. shops are for people with dry earwax rather than wet earwax. The gene(s?) for dry earwax is much more common in Asia than in other regions. If you have wet earwax, the loop thing or the picks will just scratch the inside of your ear without removing any wax at all. I sort of suspect, given your description of the way your earwax feels, that you have the wet type. (The dry type sort of forms into scaly clumps rather than a sticky coating.)
posted by Acheman at 9:29 AM on March 22, 2012

I had this problem as well, though it never got to infections. I used q-tips daily after the shower because I could feel the water in there and my ears were always itchy. I swear to god, once you stop using the q-tips for a while, the watery itching feeling will stop. I WAS AMAZED. And it took a very kind ENT to sternly tell me to stop using the fucking q-tips already. Where there's some water left in my outer ear after a shower, I now use some TP or my washclot to blot it up. WORLDS OF DIFFERENCE. Just put the q-tips down. Throw them all away. Give it a few weeks/months and you will feel beter.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 9:42 AM on March 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

If the Swan's Oil idea is not to your liking, I use "Nystatin and Triamcinolone Acetonide Ointment". This ointment is a perscription product. I am not a physician. This is not medical advice. I'm just explaining what I have found helpful. It might not be helpful to you. It might be hurtful to you. Ask your ENT about it. One 5 oz, tube should last a life time. And no Q-Tips. A little 1/2 pea size blob applied with your finger each night to your ear canal. It worked great for me. good luck and I hope this helps.
posted by Mockinbrd at 10:46 AM on March 22, 2012

The q-tip is never going to reach past your eardrum, which is a seal between your inner and outer ear. You're describing inner ear and eustacian tube problems, so nothing you do from the outside could possibly help. Go to an ENT and get it taken care of. You can also discuss having a myringotomy, where they slice a slit in your eardrum and vacuum out the fluid.

It's amazing how many people don't understand this basic bit of anatomy.
posted by PSB at 10:58 AM on March 22, 2012

I saw an ENT for a feeling of pressure in my ear, and it seems that it's actually something entirely different -- but there are so many small bits to your ear, the message can get garbled. So you might not actually have water in there, and all your poking with Q-tips will never get the water out because it doesn't exist.

Go back to an ENT.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:53 AM on March 22, 2012

Thank you, PSB. I think a result of this stern Western prohibition (about insertion of elbows, or "anything smaller than a football") is a lack of familiarity with precise locations of sensations felt inside the ear.
posted by Rash at 11:54 AM on March 22, 2012

Or rather, a difficulty with pinpointing locations of sensations.
posted by Rash at 11:55 AM on March 22, 2012

i only use the dreaded q-tip on the outer ear, and use one of these Mack's Ear Dryer after showers or other times it feels weird. A hairdryer also works, but the ear dryer doesn't get to hot, shuts off automatically, and it sort of relaxing as well. My bad ear resume includes a ton of surgeries (look for my handle and 'cholesteatoma' on flickr for gnarly pics of me bleeding), and eczema in my ears as well. I'm going to try some of these other tips as well.

Oh, and run from anyone who recommends ear candles.
posted by th3ph17 at 12:16 PM on March 22, 2012

If you need a good scare for reinforcement against using Q-tips, here's a Wayback Machine link to Penn Jillette's horrifying essay about how overzealous q-tip use caused terrible ear problems that could have made him deaf.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:05 PM on March 22, 2012

I had this problem for years and years, recurrent ear infections and all. I never went back to the ENT who unkindly told me to stop with the Q-tips, since my ears drove me absolutely crazy.

What fixed it? My sweet GP who suggested that it was water build-up behind my eardrum. It didn't feel like it was behind my eardrum to me, so I was skeptical. She prescribed Flonase and I started taking daily Zyrtec.

This fixed it. I still had to break my Q-tip habit, but it was much easier once I started taking allergy meds to control the real problem.
posted by aabbbiee at 2:43 PM on March 22, 2012

Look up Clinere ear cleaners. They have a scoop on one and and a fabulous scratcher on the other. They are disposable and I think you get a dozen for a couple bucks.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:08 PM on March 23, 2012

I was a hardcore Q-tip addict for years. I got bad ear infections every year or two. Last year's brought me to a doctor who actually listened to what I was saying about how my ears felt; she told me that I probably had dermatitis in my ears, and told me to use a little bit of hydrocortisone when my ears felt particularly itchy. (It's just a small amount on the end of my pinky finger, which I then stick into my ears and swish around a little; it doesn't get very far in, so you wouldn't think it would do anything about the really deep ear-itches, but it works fabulously.)

I thought everyone's ear canals were just constantly itchy like mine were, and everyone else was polite/self-restrained enough not to dig around in them. WRONG.
posted by yomimono at 7:48 AM on March 28, 2012

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