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ear foreign bodies

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Alternative Names 
ear foreign objects

An ear foreign body is anything inside of the ear canal other than earwax. Foreign bodies that are commonly found in the ear are beads, beans, cotton swabs, paper clips, bugs, insects, and small toys.

What is going on in the body? 
A number of objects can get into the ear canal. Once an object is inside, it becomes very difficult to remove. Due to the size of the ear canal, objects are very hard to grasp. Insects can also crawl or fly into the ear canal. Insects often do not have enough room to turn around inside of the ear canal and can become stuck. Organic material, such as food, often swells after contact with skin secretions and is harder to remove.

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition? 
Foreign bodies in the ear may cause the following symptoms: What are the causes and risks of the condition? 
Causes of foreign bodies in the ear include:
  • putting a foreign body, such as food, beads, or toys, into the ear canal
  • an insect that crawls or flies into a person's ear
  • use of cotton swabs and cleaning too far into the ear canal
  • small particles that into the ear in a person with an occupation like welding or carpentry
What can be done to prevent the condition? 
Recommendations to decrease the risk of foreign bodies in the ear include:
  • Avoid sticking anything inside of the ear canal. It is fine to clean the outside of the ear, but never stick a swab inside the ear canal.
  • If a foreign body is identified in the ear canal, see a doctor. Attempting to remove a foreign body without special instruments can push it against or through the eardrum.
  • Be cautious about the risks of flying insects and wear ear coverings.
  • Welders and carpenters should use caution with flying pieces of metal or wood.
How is the condition diagnosed? 
A doctor will look at the ear with an instrument called an otoscope. The doctor will be able to see the foreign body, as well as any inflammation of the ear canal or eardrum.

Occasionally, foreign bodies are discovered by accident during a routine ear examination. If a person has no symptoms, the foreign body can usually be left to exit the ear canal on its own. The tubes placed inside of the eardrum to help prevent ear infections are often found in the ear canal during a routine ear examination. These tubes are usually harmless and usually fall out of the ear on their own.

What are the long-term effects of the condition? 
Long-term effects of ear foreign bodies are extremely unusual. If a hole develops in the eardrum, it usually heals itself but may cause permanent damage and hearing impairment.

What are the risks to others? 
A foreign body in the ear causes no risks to others.

What are the treatments for the condition? 
Treatment will depend on the depth and type of foreign body in the ear. Some foreign bodies will fall out of the ear naturally without having to be removed. Gentle flushing of the ear canal with warm water can remove others.

Removal of some foreign bodies requires long, specially designed instruments. Live insects are usually immobilised or killed prior to removal with a liquid. Surgery is occasionally needed to remove a foreign body, or to treat damage to the ear from the foreign body.

What are the side effects of the treatments? 
The ear canal can be scraped and scratched during the removal process. A hole can be made in the eardrum while trying to remove a foreign body. Antibiotics may cause stomach upset or allergic reactions. Treatments that require surgery pose a risk of bleeding, infection, and allergic reaction to anaesthesia.

What happens after treatment for the condition? 
After the foreign body is removed, there are usually no problems or complications. If the ear canal was scratched during the removal, an antibiotic to prevent infection is used for a short time.

If a hole was put in the eardrum during the removal process, special instructions will be provided to avoid infection. Most holes in the eardrum heal without special treatment.

How is the condition monitored? 
A repeat examination in 2 or 3 days may be recommended. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the doctor.

Author: Vincent J. Toups, MD
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 6/1/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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