Ears – Foreign bodies, signs causes and treatment

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Foreign objects in the ear are common reasons for emergency room visits, especially in children.

  • The majority of these objects are harmless, and will fall out naturally.
  • Some are extremely painful and some can rapidly produce an infection requiring urgent medical treatment.

If you aren’t sure of the harm caused by a foreign body, seek medical help.

Common objects that are found in peoples ears

Most objects that get stuck in the ear canal are placed there by the person themselves. Children are especially curious and most often suffer from this problem.

These are common objects children may put in their ears:

  • Beads
  • Food
  • Paper
  • Cotton swabs
  • Rubber erasers
  • Small toys
  • Marbles

Other objects that find their way into ears:

  • 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.
  • Ear wax: This is a naturally occurring substance and only becomes a problem if it becomes hard or too much is produced

What are symptoms of a foreign body in ear?

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.

The diagnosis can be challenging in young children who are too young to talk well enough to communicate their pain. Redness, swelling, or discharge (blood, inflammatory fluid, or pus) are the usual signs of injury. Very small children often scratch or rub the ear repeatedly.

Ear wax impaction: If impacted earwax is the cause you may experience symptoms of “fullness” or pressure, and a decrease in hearing on the affected side. In extreme cases you might experience dizziness, nausea and vomiting, or unsteady walking.  This is because the inner ear is used to help us keep our balance. 

How to remove an object from the ear?

If the item is small you may try to gently shake it out, but be gentle. Pulling the back of the ear toward the back of the head straightens out the ear canal making it more likely that the foreign body slides out with a slight shake to help.

When should I call a doctor for a foreign body in my child’s ear?

The vast majority of foreign bodies in the ear are not true medical emergencies.  However if your child is in pain or you are worried that something dangerous is in their ear seek help immediately.