Ear plugs

Originally Published: November 26, 2004 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: September 5, 2014
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Dear Alice,

I am a very light sleeper so I began wearing ear plugs 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 ear plugs I have a lot of wax build-up. How can I clean my ears? And also, do you think that prolonged use of ear plugs can cause some kind of damage?

Concerned

Dear Concerned,

Normally, ears drain themselves of wax naturally. Earwax, known as “cerumen” in medical terminology, protects the inner ear by trapping bacteria, germs, or anything else that may work its way into your ear. It also coats the inside of the ear, preventing irritation of the sensitive skin there. Usually, the wax — produced by hair follicles and glands within the ear — comes out of the ear on its own. Ear plugs can block the process of earwax leaving the ear (as you have noticed), and studies have shown that prolonged use of ear plugs can cause earwax to become hardened and impacted.

Preventing the earwax — and whatever might be trapped in it — from leaving the ear may result in one of two types of infection: inflammation of the middle ear canal (otitis media) or inflammation of the external ear canal (otitis externa). Inflammation of the middle ear canal can cause the eardrum to be infected or ruptured, sometimes resulting in hearing loss and/or smelly discharge from the ear. Infection can also spread to the sinuses, sometimes leading to meningitis, cerebral abscess, or a vertigo-causing fistula. In some cases, ruptured eardrums heal on their own, but sometimes surgery — such as a skin graft — is necessary. Additionally, if you do not regularly, gently, and correctly clean your earplugs 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. Let them air dry or use a clean cloth to remove any excess moisture. 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. External ear protectors — which look similar to headphones — are another option that might be worth a try. They may not be glamorous, but they are as effective as ear plugs.

When deciding how to best clean your ears, there are several options to consider — many of which are outlined in Why, exactly, shouldn't I stick cotton swabs in my ears?. Alternatively, if you're not a fan of ear plugs and want to try a different route, you could also explore ways to address your boyfriend’s snoring, potentially eliminating the need for ear plugs altogether.

Here's to many nights of sleeping, safe and sound, in the near future!

Alice