Ear plugs

Originally Published: November 26, 2004
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Dear Alice,

I am a very light sleeper so I began wearing earplugs to be able to sleep uninterruptedly. I moved into a quieter neighborhood now and thought that I would be able to sleep without them but it turns out that my boyfriend is a snorer and so I have to keep wearing them. I know that ears clean themselves out at night but because I'm wearing the earplugs I have a lot of wax build-up. How can I clean my ears? And also, do you think that prolongued use of earplugs can cause some kind of damage?


Dear Concerned,

Your ears are designed to drain themselves of wax naturally. They need to be able to "breathe" in order to do this properly. Studies have shown that prolonged use of ear plugs can cause ear wax to become impacted, possibly resulting in tinnitus (a constant ringing in the ears), hearing loss, discharge, pain, and infection. In addition, if you do not regularly, gently, and correctly clean your ear plugs and your ears, these symptoms and conditions can become more severe.

To clean your ear plugs, wash them with water and mild soap, and rinse them thoroughly with clean water. Dry them by air or using a clean cloth. If your ear plugs still seem dirty after washing, or if they are no longer soft, it's time to buy new ones and throw the old pair away.

To clean your ears, you can use an over-the-counter (OTC) method. Ways to do this include ear wax removal systems, or by placing 1 to 2 drops of olive oil into the ear canal on a daily basis at first until the wax clears up and then weekly to keep the wax in check. Don't overdo it and follow the instructions precisely. If your ear problems persist, or if new ones occur, contact your health care provider.

External ear protectors also might be worth a try, although they appear similar to head phones, not glamorous, but as effective as ear plugs.

You can also suggest to your snoring boyfriend that he ask his primary care provider for the name of a sleep specialist to consult, not only to help lessen the noisy sounds, but also for his own health. Snoring also can be associated with mouth breathing, sleep apnea, adenoids, or other sleep disorders that hinder the ability to sleep soundly. In extreme situations, sleep apnea, for example, can result in death.

You could bring up with your boyfriend that you alternate using your ear plugs with his using a mouth piece. Perhaps you could also recommend some hints to alleviate his snoring, such as not drinking alcohol or taking any tranquilizers or depressants 2 to 3 hours before going to sleep, or taking honey for a few weeks. Hopefully, within a month or two, both of you can sleep soundly without the hassle of having to use mouth pieces or ear plugs.