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Published February 15, 2012, 11:30 PM

Mathison: For safety, just say ‘no’ to ear candles

Despite being a traditionally trained physician, I consider myself open to many complementary therapies.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices blogger, INFORUM

Despite being a traditionally trained physician, I consider myself open to many complementary therapies.

I appreciate the value of meditation to soothe the nervous system, of prayer and visualization to improve to improve surgical outcomes, and of massage, physical therapy and chiropractic treatment to improve our physical bodies.

I think nutritional supplements and even more importantly, the foods that we eat are vital to health and well-being.

But when I read on Facebook of someone touting the wonders of ear candles to “cure” ear wax and hearing loss, I just have to say NO.

I have personal experience caring for a young woman who severely burned her ear canal while using and ear candle.

She had extreme pain, hearing loss and required general anesthesia for removal of the candle wax that dripped into her canal. Recovery took several weeks.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with ear candles or ear cones, they are made of fabric soaked in wax and shaped to form a hollow tube. In theory, the combination of heat and suction is supposed to remove ear wax.

Technically marketed “for entertainment or recreational use,” ear candles have been touted to relieve sinus pain, cure ear infections, help relieve tinnitus and vertigo, and even strengthen the brain.

While ear candles are widely available in the U.S., selling or importing them with medical claims is illegal. This means that one cannot market ear candles as products that “Diagnose, cure, treat or prevent any disease.”

Health Canada states “There is no scientific proof to support claims that ear candling provides medical benefits. ... However, there is plenty of proof that ear candling is dangerous.”

The patient lies on one side with the treated ear uppermost and the candle vertical. The candle is sometimes stuck through a paper plate or aluminum pie tin to protect against any hot wax or ash falling onto the subject. This “candle” is placed in the ear and burned down to a stub 2-4 inches long. The process takes 20-30 minutes.

After the procedure is finished, a brown waxy substance, believed by ear candling practitioners to be a mixture of ear wax, debris and bacteria, is left in the candle stub. Scientific studies show that this is not true. The residue and debris left in the stub is simply the melted wax and burned fabric from the candle itself. Research has also shown that no vacuum effect is created.

Locally I have seen this procedure offered by beauty salons and spas, as well as massage therapists. Some people order them off the internet for home use.

Since it seems to cause so much trouble, why do we have ear wax? The scientific name is cerumen, and it’s produced in the outer third of the ear canal. It is a mixture of sebaceous secretions and skin cells. Fear, stress and anxiety result in increased production of earwax.

Earwax can have a soft caramel-like wet consistency, or be dry and flaky. Genetics play a role here. The wet type is dominant and found in people of Caucasian and African descent, while the dry type, is recessive and noted more in Asians and Native Americans.

The ear canal is meant to be self-cleaning, as skin cells migrate from the tympanic membrane out the ear canal. Wax in the canal also moves outward as the skin underneath grows outward, taking with it dirt, dust and any particulate matter that may have gathered. I always tease little kids that earwax keeps the bugs out.

Earwax lubricates the skin, and seems to minimize bacterial and fungal growth in the canal. Movement of the jaw causes some movement of the cartilage of the ear can and facilitates the natural cleaning process.

Here are my tips for clean ears:

  1. Don’t worry about it unless the wax is causing discomfort or blockage. Yes, use your washcloth the wipe the bowl of your ear, but like Mom said, don’t put anything smaller than your elbow inside your ear canal.

  2. Cotton swabs usually push the wax further into the canal, especially if you have wet wax.

  3. Softeners in the form of drops like Debrox seem to emulsify the wax and help it come out. I also sometimes suggest a couple of drops of olive oil once a week if you have hard dry wax.

  4. If you get itching ears, especially after swimming, white vinegar drops are useful.

  5. Don’t put anything in your ears or your child’s ears if tubes or a perforation is present.

  6. Professional help is sometimes needed. Your family doctor may be able to flush out the wax with a syringe. Make sure the water is body temperature or it could make you dizzy. Stubborn wax might mean a trip to an ear-nose-throat specialist, where a microscope and special tools or suction is used to get the wax out.

    But please, no ear candles!

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com.