Objects in the Ear

Topic Overview

Picture of the anatomy of the ear

Objects (foreign bodies) inserted into the ear usually do not cause significant damage. But objects that are inserted forcefully can damage the ear canal or penetrate the eardrum.

Problems with objects in the ear most commonly occur in children younger than age 5 and in people who have problems with thinking and reasoning, such as an intellectual disability or Alzheimer's disease.

Some objects in the ear cause more problems than others.

  • An insect or object in the ear may cause minimal symptoms. A young child may complain of discomfort or unusual noises in the ear. In this case, it is reasonable to try to remove the object. If the object cannot be removed, it may fall out on its own over the next 24 hours.
  • Food items may be placed in the ear. Dry foods expand when they become moist. Seeds, such as beans, peas, or popcorn, can swell from the moistness of the ear canal, making them harder to remove. The objects may cause pain and hearing loss as they expand to fill the ear canal. The irritation may cause a bad-smelling liquid to drain from the ear.
  • The tip or a piece of cotton from a cotton swab may become lodged in the ear canal if one is used to try to clean the ear canal or remove another object.
  • Disc batteries (also called button cell batteries) are more dangerous than other objects and should be removed immediately. The moist tissue in the ear canal can cause the battery to release strong chemicals (alkali) quickly, often in less than 1 hour. These chemicals can cause a severe burn and scarring in a little as 4 hours.

The longer an object is left in the ear, the more difficult it is to remove. Also, the longer an object stays in the ear, the higher the chances of infection. A visit to a doctor is needed if an object remains in the ear longer than 24 hours.

An urgent visit to a doctor is needed any time a disc battery is placed in the ear or if symptoms of injury develop after an object has been inserted in the ear. Symptoms of injury include sudden hearing loss, moderate to severe pain, dizziness, or bleeding.

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Home Treatment

To remove an object from the ear:

  • Tilt the head to the side and shake it. Gently pulling the ear up and back may straighten the ear canal and help dislodge the object.
  • If the object is visible and the person is calm and cooperative, carefully try to remove the object with blunt-ended tweezers. Do not use non-gripping instruments, such as bobby pins, cotton swabs, or matchsticks. Use care not to push the object farther into the ear.
  • Do not try to remove an object if the person will not hold still.
  • Do not try to remove an object if it is so far inside the ear that you can't see the tips of the tweezers.
  • Do not try to flush an object out with water.
  • When trying to remove an object from a child's ear:
    • Speak to the child in a calm, relaxed voice. This will help control the child's fear.
    • An object that is not causing symptoms does not have to be removed immediately. If the child is upset, it may be best to let him or her calm down before trying to remove the object.

To remove a disc battery from the ear:

If the battery is partially out of the ear, you may be able to remove it with your fingers or blunt-nosed tweezers.

  • Do not use non-gripping instruments, such as bobby pins, cotton swabs, or matchsticks.
  • Use care not to push the battery farther into the ear.
  • If a child resists or is not able to hold still, do not attempt to remove the battery.
  • Do not use eardrops or sprays of any type. This can cause the battery to corrode more quickly.

Note:

If you cannot remove the battery, call your doctor. If you are not able to reach your doctor immediately, go directly to the nearest hospital emergency department. Do not place eardrops or other solutions of any kind in the ear in an attempt to remove the battery. Eardrops can cause the battery to corrode quickly, causing severe damage to the ear canal.

To remove an insect from an ear:

Do not try to kill an insect that has flown or crawled inside the ear.

  • Instead, pull the ear up and back, and let the sun or a bright light shine inside the ear. Insects are attracted to light and may crawl out.
  • If the insect does not crawl out:
    • Lie the person down with the ear facing upward.
    • Fill the ear canal with warm (body temperature) mineral, olive, or baby oil. The insect may float out.

Do not use ear candles. They have no proven benefit in the removal of earwax or other objects in the ear and can cause serious injury.

Symptoms to Watch For During Home Treatment

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to evaluate your symptoms if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Pain develops or increases.
  • The object or insect cannot be removed.
  • The ear, ear canal, or the skin around the ear becomes red or swollen.
  • Drainage from the ear develops.
  • You develop other symptoms, such as hearing loss, dizziness, or bleeding.
  • Your symptoms become more severe or frequent.

Prevention

Small children love to explore their surroundings. They are also curious about their bodies. To prevent children from inserting objects into their ears:

  • Supervise young children, especially children younger than age 5, to reduce the risk that they will put objects in their ears or other body openings, such as the mouth, nose, rectum, or vagina.
  • Keep all objects small enough to be swallowed or inserted into body openings away from small children. Warn children not to put any object into a body opening.
  • Store all disc batteries in a safe place out of the reach of children. Properly dispose of used disc batteries out of the reach of children.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What is in your ear? If the object has been removed, take it with you.
  • How long has the object been in your ear? If the object has been removed, how long was it in the ear?
  • How have you tried to remove the object? What methods have you used? What happened?
  • If the object has been removed, how was this done?
  • What symptoms have developed since the object became stuck in the ear?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

Author Jan Nissl, RN, BS
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Tracy Landauer
Primary Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Last Updated February 12, 2010

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