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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 canalClick here to see an illustration. 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.

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