A foreign body in the ear is anything that gets stuck in your ear canal other than earwax. Foreign bodies are usually trapped in the outer ear canal. The outer ear canal, or external auditory canal, is the tube from the opening of your ear to the eardrum. Many kinds of objects can get into the ear canal. Once an object is inside, it becomes difficult to remove because of the small size of the ear canal .
Anything that is inserted in your ear may get stuck and cause an ear foreign body. Children may put and push things into their ears during play. These things may include food, toy pieces, beads, buttons or disk batteries. Sometimes a child may put an object into the ear of another child. In adults, ear foreign bodies are usually inserted on purpose to clean, ease irritation or control bleeding. These may include paper, cotton swabs and sponge material. Ear foreign bodies may also include insects that fly or crawl into the ear canal.
Signs and symptoms
There may be a feeling that something is in your ear. You may have ear fullness or have trouble hearing if the ear canal is blocked. Foreign bodies may also cause itching, pain, fever, redness or bleeding. Thick drainage and a foul odor may come from the affected ear. This usually happens when the object has been there for a long time and infection has set in. If the foreign body is an insect, you may feel movement or hear buzzing.
Your doctor will take a detailed history from you, including any ear problems you may have had. It is important that your doctor knows how long the foreign body has been inside the ear. It is also important to inform your doctor if you have tried to remove the stuck object. This will give your doctor an idea of how bad the problem may be.
With good lighting, your doctor will carefully check your ear using an otoscope. An otoscope is an instrument used to better see the inside of the ear. Your doctor may also look for other problems, such as bleeding, infection or injury. Your eardrum will also be checked for tears or holes. Your doctor may also order a hearing test.
Treatment will depend on what type of foreign body is in your ear. Treatment may also depend on how long and how deep the foreign body is in the ear canal and may include:
- Medicines: Numbing medicine may be put on your ear before doctors try to remove the foreign body. You may be given sedative and pain medicines to help you stay comfortable, calm and relaxed. Antibiotics may also be given to help you treat or prevent an infection caused by bacteria. This may be in the form of drops placed directly on the ear. If other problems occur, such as eardrum injury, your doctor may also give you antibiotics to be taken by mouth.
- Procedures: If the object can be seen directly, removal may be done using any of the following:
- Instruments: Forceps (grasper), hook or curette (scraper) may be used to remove the foreign body.
- Irrigation: Water that is body temperature is used to force the object out of the canal. Irrigation cannot be used to take out batteries or objects that may expand when they get wet, such as seeds. This procedure also cannot be used on people with an eardrum tear.
- Suction: A machine that sucks out the object from the ear canal may be used to remove small objects. This procedure uses a small plastic tube that goes in the ear and is connected to the machine.
- Chemicals: Hydrogen peroxide or acetone may be used to melt dried glue. Acetone may also be used to remove gum or plastic foam.
- Glue: Your doctor may use a stick with glue on the end to take out the foreign body. This is done by touching the foreign body with the stick and pulling it out when the glue dries. This may not be done in patients who cannot sit still during the procedure.
- Other: Liquid, such as mineral oil, may be used if the foreign body is a live insect. This is put in the ear to kill the insect first before taking it out. Once the insect is no longer moving, it is taken out whole or in pieces using instruments.
- Surgery: You may need to have surgery if the foreign body is very deep. Surgery may also be done to treat ear damage caused by the foreign body. In some cases, foreign body removal may need to be done under general anesthesia. General anesthesia is medicine that makes you completely asleep and free from pain during the procedure.
For more information about DMC Sinai-Grace Hospital’s audiology and hearing services or to make an appointment, call 313-966-4725.