I have struggled with outer ear infections my entire life, which I define as a major issue considering I am a singer and my ears directly affect my ability to perform. As a child, my mother would treat them with sweet oil and Tylenol. We made trips to the chiropractor’s to get relief. I rarely remember getting medicated drops from the M.D., but I vividly recall the pain, the inability to sleep or rest, and the irrational feelings of fear that seeped in. For a child, pain and sickness can sometimes create a feeling of tremendous insecurity.
Growing up, I knew when one was “coming on” as soon as my ear felt a little plugged and my head felt a little dizzy. The pain would hit hours later, usually at night when it was time to sleep. The fever would come later yet. Nothing seems to be able to really soothe this kind of pain.
Most of my experiences have been with outer-ear infections, although I have had middle/inner-ear infections as well. It has been described to me by doctors and nurses that my ear canals are rather small (like a child’s) and fluid becomes easily trapped inside. After many years of regular infections, countless antibiotics and drops, (followed by yeast infections and other complications,) unsuccessful medical treatments, and eventual eardrum-bursting experiences, I have found a way in which to maintain my ears without the use of drugs.
1.) Keep your ears covered in wet/cold situations. I really believe in prevention. Hats are wonderful, and even adorable!
2.) Avoid getting run down. Most of my infections which were not a direct result of the dreaded swimming experience have been in conjunction with colds. When others get sinus infections, I get ear infections. The doctor could not tell me that my ears acted up based on the same triggers affecting other citizens and their sinuses, but I can tell you that without fail, when everyone has allergies and sinus issues, I have ear issues. Staying healthy, well-hydrated, and well-rested helps me avoid a true surrender to full-blown ear infections.
3.) When my ears begin filling with fluid, despite my best efforts to prevent, I have found that heat and massage encourage draining. For twelve years now I have been able to fight these infections off on my own without drugs by using heat and massage. Prior to that, I spent many nights in emergency rooms, sometimes accepting shots of morphine, vomiting, taking heavy-duty drug prescriptions for pain home with me, and ultimately struggling to function for a week at a time.
A heating pad used for limited quantities of time can be very soothing. More importantly I have discovered that it keeps the fluids warm, or keeps the wax fluid, allowing some natural-draining to take place. I will sometimes take a hand towel and place it over the heating pad while I lay my head on the towel attempting to relax. I can only take a few minutes at a time, which is probably all that’s recommended anyway.
The other thing I do is massage around my ear. I am a little brutal with my own ears. I use my own hand to massage. I tug on my ear, finding the place that is most tender, pinpointing where exactly the fluid is trapped, and focus my massaging on that spot. It has been so bad before that my entire jaw was unable to open because of infection in my ear canal. I promise I understand how cruel massaging this spot seems, but it seems to work. It breaks it up. I also use a vibrating massager. This is a great tool, and sometimes can be found for ten dollars or so at department stores. I alternate the massage with the heat.
4.) Keep ears clear. This is a hard one. I DO NOT recommend using cotton swabs ever. Using cotton swabs in my ears resulted in mashing wax and fluids to the back of my ear canal near my eardrum, creating a very difficult to reach, impossible to drain, mass. This in turn produced more pain and discomfort, and a bigger problem which required the help of a nurse. I have especially waxy ears (Thank you, Grandpa.) Because they seem to hyper-produce wax, I have always got an issue. I’ve discovered ear candles to be extremely helpful, and in this article, I will explain how I use them. I also use two controversial techniques; one definitely not recommended by doctors, and the other not recommended by me until you have an idea how your ears will react. The two techniques, self-irrigation and extensive-cleaning using a tool, will be discussed in more depth below.
5.) Avoid allergens. I am allergic to wheat and dairy, as well as dust. Before I respected these allergies, my ears were in a constant state of chaos. I had an acidic body which housed chronic infection of all sorts. My fluids in my ears became crystallized, which accounted for the impossible draining, at least partly. I recommend that people actively understand their own bodies. Do not blindly accept medicine. Find out what is causing the symptom and seek ways to avoid sickness in the first place.
Using an Ear Candle:
Ear candles can be purchased at your local health food store. They’re long and usually cream-colored, shaped somewhat like a straw, with one end being wider than the other. I would never try to use an ear candle on my own. You need to have another person helping you for safety. Using a tinfoil pan (either recycled from a frozen food, or purchased at a dollar store), cut a hole in the middle of the pan, just large enough for the ear candle to fit through. Place it near the bottom of the ear candle. It depends on the candle, but most of them are probably ten or twelve inches tall. I let a good eight inches of the candle stand out above the tinfoil. With the help of your friend, lie down on a couch or bed and place the narrow end (the bottom) of the candle in your ear. Your friend needs to make sure the candle stays upright throughout this entire procedure. You don’t want it to start tipping sideways, because he’s going to light the other end of the candle with a candle lighter. The tinfoil pan is the tray which catches floating ashes of candle.
Using an ear candle is not painful, but it does feel a little strange. It makes a lot of noise because it’s placed in the ear, and it crackles and tickles a little. Also, because of the open flame, it gets pretty hot. Do your best to endure the heat. What is happening is very cool. The funnel shape of the candle combines with the heat, and together they create a vacuum-effect which pulls “things” out of your ear canal.
Your assistant should have a container of water right next to you at all times. Once your candle has burned down to about four inches or so (it takes several minutes), your assistant should take the candle from you and should snuff it in the water to put out the flame. **You will probably know when it’s time to stop because the heat will become too much.
(I always take tiny manicure scissors and cut open the candle from the side just to see what’s in there. It’s fascinating to see the wax, often crystallized and dark, that has been pulled from your ear without invading it!)
(This is the method I do not recommend until a person has mastered the art of massage and heat to encourage natural draining.) When I first began trying to learn about maintaining my ears without having to go to the doctor’s, I was terrified to try using water or any other fluid to do so. Previously I’d had infections which got out of hand and resulted in my ear drums bursting, and I blamed the use of medicated ear drops. My theory was (and still is) that if my canals somehow got irritated and eventually infected because of fluids, why should I add more fluids to be trapped in there?
After I taught myself how to help my ears drain through the use of massage and heat, I began getting more adventurous. I began letting the hot water from the shower into my ears, as long as I immediately massaged them and made sure they drained. After while, I began soaking them in the tub, purposefully filling them. The hot water would get trapped, it’s true. But as long as I immediately followed up with a heating pad and vibrating massager, I was able to drain the water, and some of the trapped fluid would drain with it. The heat from the water and the heating pad appeared to encourage the wax to soften and drain as well.
In some extreme cases, I still need to have a professional irrigate at the doctor’s office. I’m always glad to have it done.
Extensive-Cleaning Using a Tool:
This is the most controversial method of self-help in this article. I will preface my discussion with this: If you aren’t comfortable trying this, don’t. Also, I’ve done it every which way, and hurt myself before. Over time I learned what works best for me, and I am going to share it.
I use a toothpick or a needle. Already that sounds scary. People have to go to emergency rooms for shoving things in their ears, and here I am telling you two horribly sharp things I use in mine. I refuse to use cotton swabs. But I will use a thinner, sharper object to gently go quite deeply into the center of the ear canal, careful to not scratch or puncture the sides of the ear. I basically use the object to pierce the collection of “gunk” that hovers which blocks drainage and inhibits hearing. I do not use the sharp object to aggressively itch or scrape clean. That would be very unhealthy. (I’ve hurt myself this way before, creating a wicked infection from irritating the skin. Not good.) The key is to be gentle. I liken it to creating a leak in a dam. Once a little starts to drain, it’s only a matter of time before the rest succumbs.
Here’s to healthy ears!