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‘Something’s stuck in my ear!’ - What parents need to know

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The current pandemic is giving parents a golden opportunity to spend more time with their children and help them with things like school work and chores, or share in their favorite recreational activities and playtime. If you are the parent of a little one, you might also be a pro at tending to minor scrapes, bumps and bruises. After all, as kids run and play, they’re prone to tumbles.

Unfortunately, another thing children are known for is getting things stuck in their ears. When this occurs, parents might fret about what to do. Should you play doctor? Or take them to a real doctor? It depends…

What to do, what not to do

Obviously, when something gets lodged in a child’s ear, it’s a cause for concern. A foreign object in an ear can cause pain, infection, inflammation, a sense of fullness in the ear, injury to the ear drum and hearing loss.

If you notice something stuck in your child’s ear, consider if it is possible to remove it. If the foreign object is completely visible, compliant and easily graspable with tweezers, gently take it out. Use gravity to your advantage. To accomplish this, tilt your child’s head to the affected side to try to free the foreign object.

DO NOT probe your child’s ear with a tool. Never use a cotton swab or matchstick to try to remove something from the ear.

DO NOT flush the ear with water, especially for objects like popcorn kernels, beans or other vegetable matter as this can cause the material to swell and become more stuck. If the object is a disc battery (lithium ion), this will promote charge across the battery and worsen injury to the surrounding tissues.

If you can’t easily and safely remove the object, seek professional medical guidance.

Getting professional help

SIU Medicine’s highly trained Otolaryngology staff is up to the task of safely removing the most stubborn and unusual foreign objects from youngsters’ ears. How unusual? At SIU Medicine, doctors have removed Barbie cellphones, Hot Wheels car wheels and hearing aid batteries from children’s ears. Other items found lodged in young ears include beads, pebbles and popcorn kernels.

You should also come see us if the object came free but your child continues to have pain, has a discharge from the ear canal, has diminished hearing, appears off balance or continues to feel a sensation of something in his or her ear.

Is it an emergency?

When children get foreign objects wedged in their ears, parents often take them to the emergency room. At the emergency room, doctors may use a tool like a curette or wire loop to remove the foreign object from it. This could cause a scratch or irritation to the skin of the ear canal. If they are unable to remove the object, you may end up being referred to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) physician for evaluation and removal. Emergent medical attention should be sought if your child placed a disc battery in the ear, as within a matter of minutes to an hour it can cause burns and significant damage to the skin of the ear canal or even the ear drum. If your child shows signs of dizziness/imbalance or complains of significant hearing loss following a foreign body, this is concerning for injury deeper in the ear that needs immediate attention and evaluation by a specialist.

A better option: call the Otolaryngology clinic at SIU Medicine. ENT doctors can usually find and remove the foreign object more quickly, as they have specialized instruments in the office that allow for better visualization (microscopes) and easier removal. This often results in less discomfort and stress for the child. If necessary the physician can remove the object in the operating room with the child asleep and comfortable. This can be a better situation for both the parent and the child. 

When you notice your child has something stuck in his or her ear, don’t panic. If you can’t safely remove it, contact the experienced staff at SIU Medicine. Before you know it, your little one will be object-free and back to normal.

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