STEVE INSKEEP, host:
If you're having trouble hearing our updates on Hurricane Gustav or the Republican convention today, maybe it's because you've got a little too much ear wax. That's why we're presenting guidelines for the removal of impacted ear wax. Here's NPR's Joe Palca.
JOE PALCA: First, let's be clear. Ear wax isn't really wax. It's, technically speaking, desclimated sheets of corneocytes from the external auditory canal mixed with glandular secretions; or put another way, dead skin cells and goo.
One thing that is true about ear wax, it is ubiquitous, but don't just take it from me.
Dr. RICHARD ROSENFELD(ph) (Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist): Ear wax is ubiquitous.
PALCA: Richard Rosenfeld is an ear, nose and throat specialist and an author of the new guidelines put together by the American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery Foundation. Besides being ubiquitous, Rosenfeld says ear wax is good for you.
Dr. ROSENFELD: Ear wax is a naturally occurring product that cleans, protects and lubricates your ear canal. So it's very beneficial.
PALCA: But there are times when ear wax builds up, blocking off the ear canal entirely. Rosenfeld says patients with impacted ear wax may experience a sense of fullness in the ear, hearing loss, or pain.
Dr. ROSENFELD: Other things that do occur are some ringing in the ear, also known as tinnitus. Some dizziness can occur and even coughing, because there are little nerve fibers in the ear canal that actually are common to your diaphragm.
PALCA: It's easy enough for a doctor to look in your ear and see if the wax is the cause of these symptoms. If so, it's time to remove it. Now here's a quiz. Your ear's stopped up, it's driving you mad; what's the best tool to remove it? A) A jackhammer. B) A pneumatic drill. Or C) An ice pick. I'll give you a hint. It's not C.
Dr. ROSENFELD: That is correct. No ice picks.
PALCA: Okay, none of the above. But Rosenfeld says people do use some strange and potentially dangerous techniques for removing ear wax.
Dr. ROSENFELD: Other harmful devices are the oral jet irrigators that people often use to clean their gums for dental purposes.
PALCA: You mean something like the Waterpik?
Dr. ROSENFELD: Exactly. It's quite popular to squirt that in your ear.
PALCA: Rosenfeld says doing so runs a significant risk of damaging your ear drum.
Dr. ROSENFELD: The granddaddy of all the bad things to do are the so-called ear candles.
PALCA: An ear candle is a hollow, paraffin-covered cylinder. You put it in your ear and light it. Supposedly this causes a suction in the tube that draws out the ear wax. In fact, Rosenfeld says, it doesn't work, and you can light your hair on fire if you're not careful.
One more bad but extremely popular idea, trying to dig out the wax with a Q-tip. Dan McCarter(ph) is a family physician with the University of Virginia Health System. He's the author of a recent article on how to remove ear wax. He says not only will a Q-tip not get the wax out, it'll make things worse.
Dr. DAN McCARTER (Family Physician): It's almost like using a tamping rod in a cannon. They're tamping it down further in the ear.
PALCA: So how does McCarter remove ear wax?
Dr. McCARTER: If I can actually see it, and it's not too far down in the ear, I like using a little tool called alligator forceps.
PALCA: A kind of fancy tweezer.
Dr. McCARTER: If that works, it's very quick. If it doesn't work, then I usually irrigate the ears.
PALCA: Irrigation involves injecting a steady stream of water into the ear and flushing out the wax. Both approaches are approved in the new guidelines.
We can only hope that if this country's future leaders experience any of the symptoms of impacted ear wax, they'll seek the advice of a trained professional, such as Dr. McCarter or Dr. Rosenfeld. Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.