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Objects in the Ear

Topic Overview

Picture of the anatomy of the ear

Objects (foreign bodies) inserted into the ear usually do not cause significant damage. But objects that are inserted forcefully can damage the ear canal or penetrate the eardrum.

Problems with objects in the ear most commonly occur in children younger than age 5 and in people who have problems with thinking and reasoning, such as an intellectual disability or Alzheimer's disease.

Some objects in the ear cause more problems than others.

  • An insect or object in the ear may cause minimal symptoms. A young child may complain of discomfort or unusual noises in the ear. In this case, it is reasonable to try to remove the object. If the object can't be removed, it may fall out on its own over the next 24 hours.
  • Food items may be placed in the ear. Dry foods expand when they become moist. Seeds, such as beans, peas, or popcorn, can swell from the moistness of the ear canal, making them harder to remove. The objects may cause pain and hearing loss as they expand to fill the ear canal. The irritation may cause a bad-smelling liquid to drain from the ear.
  • The tip or a piece of cotton from a cotton swab may become lodged in the ear canal if one is used to try to clean the ear canal or remove another object.
  • Disc batteries (also called button cell batteries) are more dangerous than other objects and should be removed immediately. The moist tissue in the ear canal can cause the battery to release strong chemicals (alkali) quickly, often in less than 1 hour. These chemicals can cause a severe burn and scarring in a little as 4 hours.

The longer an object is left in the ear, the harder it is to remove. Also, the longer an object stays in the ear, the higher the chances of infection. A visit to a doctor is needed if an object remains in the ear longer than 24 hours.

An urgent visit to a doctor is needed any time a disc battery is placed in the ear or if symptoms of injury develop after an object has been inserted in the ear. Symptoms of injury include sudden hearing loss, moderate to severe pain, dizziness, or bleeding.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Do you have an ear problem caused by an object in the ear?
Yes
Ear problem from an object in ear
No
Ear problem from an object in ear
How old are you?
Less than 12 years
Less than 12 years
12 years or older
12 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female
Did a disc battery get stuck in the ear?
Yes
Disc battery in ear
No
Disc battery in ear
Can you remove the battery from the ear?
You can use tweezers for this.
Yes
Able to remove disc battery from ear
No
Not able to remove disc battery from ear
Is there any drainage or bleeding from the ear?
Yes
Drainage or bleeding from ear
No
Drainage or bleeding from ear
Is any food or plant matter stuck in the ear?
Plants and foods (especially foods like beans or popcorn) can soak up moisture in the ear and get bigger. They need to be removed right away.
Yes
Pieces of food or plant stuck in ear
No
Pieces of food or plant stuck in ear
Is there any pain in the ear?
Yes
Ear pain
No
Ear pain
Is the pain severe?
Severe means that the pain is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
Yes
Severe pain
No
Severe pain
Do you have any new hearing loss?
Yes
New hearing loss
No
New hearing loss
Was the hearing loss sudden and complete?
Yes
Sudden and complete hearing loss
No
Sudden and complete hearing loss
Do you feel dizzy?
Yes
Dizziness
No
Dizziness
Is the dizziness severe?
Severe means that you are so dizzy that you need help to stand or walk.
Yes
Severe dizziness
No
Severe dizziness
Do you think you may have an ear infection?
Pain and discharge from the ear are the usual symptoms of infection.
Yes
Possible ear infection
No
Possible ear infection
Do you have diabetes or a weakened immune system?
What weakens the immune system in an adult or older child may be different than in a young child or baby.
Yes
Diabetes or immune problem
No
Diabetes or immune problem
Has an object been stuck in the ear for more than 24 hours (1 full day)?
Yes
Object stuck in ear for more than 24 hours
No
Object stuck in ear for more than 24 hours

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.

Seek Care Now

Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.

  • Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
  • You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
    • You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
    • You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.

Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in children are:

  • Diseases such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell disease, and congenital heart disease.
  • Steroid medicines, which are used to treat a variety of conditions.
  • Medicines taken after organ transplant.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
  • Not having a spleen.

Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:

  • Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
  • Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
  • Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
  • Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
  • Medicines taken after organ transplant.
  • Not having a spleen.

Disc batteries are small, round batteries used in toys, cameras, watches, and other devices. Because of the chemicals they can release, they can cause serious problems if they are swallowed or get stuck in an ear or the nose. Small magnets used in household items and objects that contain a lot of lead (such as bullets, buckshot, fishing weights and sinkers, and some toys) also can cause problems if swallowed.

  • If a disc battery is stuck in the ear or nose:
    • The battery needs to be removed right away—within 1 hour if possible.
    • Use tweezers to try to remove the battery. If you can't remove it, get medical help.
  • If you have swallowed a disc battery, magnet, or lead object:
    • Get medical help right away.
    • Do not try to vomit.
    • Do not eat or drink anything.

Seek Care Today

Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.

  • Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
  • If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
  • If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.

Home Treatment

To remove an object from the ear:

  • Tilt the head to the side and shake it. Gently pulling the ear up and back may straighten the ear canal and help dislodge the object.
  • If the object is visible and the person is calm and cooperative, carefully try to remove the object with blunt-ended tweezers. Do not use non-gripping instruments, such as bobby pins, cotton swabs, or matchsticks. Use care not to push the object farther into the ear.
  • Do not try to remove an object if the person will not hold still.
  • Do not try to remove an object if it is so far inside the ear that you can't see the tips of the tweezers.
  • Do not try to flush an object out with water.
  • When trying to remove an object from a child's ear:
    • Speak to the child in a calm, relaxed voice. This will help control the child's fear.
    • An object that is not causing symptoms does not have to be removed right away. If the child is upset, it may be best to let him or her calm down before trying to remove the object.

To remove a disc battery from the ear:

If the battery is partially out of the ear, you may be able to remove it with your fingers or blunt-nosed tweezers.

  • Do not use non-gripping instruments, such as bobby pins, cotton swabs, or matchsticks.
  • Use care not to push the battery farther into the ear.
  • If a child resists or is not able to hold still, do not attempt to remove the battery.
  • Do not use eardrops or sprays of any type. This can cause the battery to corrode more quickly.

Note:

If you can't remove the battery, call your doctor. If you are not able to reach your doctor immediately, go directly to the nearest hospital emergency department. Do not place eardrops or other solutions of any kind in the ear in an attempt to remove the battery. Eardrops can cause the battery to corrode quickly, causing severe damage to the ear canal.

To remove an insect from an ear:

Do not try to kill an insect that has flown or crawled inside the ear.

  • Instead, pull the ear up and back, and let the sun or a bright light shine inside the ear. Insects are attracted to light and may crawl out.
  • If the insect does not crawl out:
    • Lie the person down with the ear facing upward.
    • Fill the ear canal with warm (body temperature) mineral, olive, or baby oil. The insect may float out.

Do not use ear candles. They have no proven benefit in the removal of earwax or other objects in the ear and can cause serious injury.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Pain develops or increases.
  • The object cannot be removed.
  • The ear, ear canal, or the skin around the ear becomes red or swollen.
  • Drainage from the ear develops.
  • You develop other symptoms, such as hearing loss, dizziness, or bleeding.
  • Your symptoms become more severe or frequent.

Prevention

Small children love to explore their surroundings. They are also curious about their bodies. To prevent children from inserting objects into their ears:

  • Supervise young children, especially children younger than age 5, to reduce the risk that they will put objects in their ears or other body openings, such as the mouth, nose, rectum, or vagina.
  • Keep all objects small enough to be swallowed or inserted into body openings away from small children. Warn children not to put any object into a body opening.
  • Store all disc batteries in a safe place out of the reach of children. Properly dispose of used disc batteries out of the reach of children.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What is in your ear? If the object has been removed, take it with you.
  • How long has the object been in your ear? If the object has been removed, how long was it in the ear?
  • How have you tried to remove the object? What methods have you used? What happened?
  • If the object has been removed, how was this done?
  • What symptoms have developed since the object became stuck in the ear?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised January 10, 2012

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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