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Ear Foreign Bodies

Alternate Names

  • ear foreign objects
  • Ear

Definition

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

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.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Causes of foreign bodies in the ear include:
  • putting a foreign body, such as food, bead, or toy, 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 blow into the ear during work such as welding or carpentry

Prevention

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 healthcare professional. Attempting to remove a foreign body without special instruments can push it against or through the eardrum.
  • Welders and carpenters should use caution with flying pieces of metal or wood. Welders, especially, should always wear ear protection.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

A healthcare professional will look at the ear with an instrument called an otoscope or, in some instances, with a microscope. The professional 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 exam. If a person has no symptoms, the foreign body can usually be left to exit the ear canal on its own.
A tube that was placed in the eardrum to help prevent ear infections can often be found later in the ear canal during a routine ear exam. These tubes are usually harmless and fall out of the ear on their own.

Long Term Effects

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 on its own but may cause permanent damage and hearing impairment.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

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

Treatments

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 immobilized or killed with a liquid prior to removal. Surgery is occasionally needed to remove a foreign body, or to repair damage to the ear from the foreign body.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

The ear canal can be scraped and scratched during the removal process. A hole can be punched in the eardrum inadvertently while trying to remove a foreign body. Antibiotics may cause stomach upset or allergic reactions. Surgery can be complicated by bleeding, infection, or an allergic reaction to anesthetic.

After Treatment

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.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

A repeat exam in 2 or 3 days may be recommended. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare professional.

Sources

Professional Guide to Signs and Symptoms, Springhouse, 1997

Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 1998, Fauci et al.

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