Foreign Objects or Insects in the Ear: Symptoms, Causes, and Remedies

  • Medical Author:
    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.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    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.

Is It OK to Remove Earwax Buildup?

Earwax is a natural substance produced by glands in the skin of the outer ear canal. Earwax has a purpose, but it can buildup and cause problems like itching, hearing loss, dizziness, ringing in the ears, and pain. You shouldn't ever use Q-tips or other items to clean your ears because these items generally push the wax further down the ear canal. There are medical guidelines recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery for the removal and treatment of impacted earwax buildup.

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:

  • Beads
  • Food (especially beans)
  • Paper
  • Cotton swabs
  • Rubber erasers
  • Small toys
  • Marbles
  • 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.

Picture of Ear Canal and Inner Ear Structure
Picture of Ear Canal and Inner Ear Structure

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.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/7/2017

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