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Objects in the Ear

Overview

Objects (foreign bodies) inserted into the ear usually do not cause much damage. But objects that are inserted with force can damage the ear canal or pierce the eardrum.

Problems with objects in the ear most often 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 just cause minor symptoms. A young child may complain of discomfort or unusual noises in the ear. In this case, it likely is okay 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.
  • Some food items can cause problems if they are 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 right away. 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 as 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 stays in the ear longer than 24 hours.

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

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

The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.

  • If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
  • If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
  • If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
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, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Self-Care

Follow these tips 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.

  • Remove the object with blunt-ended tweezers.

    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.

  • Don't try to remove an object if the person will not hold still.
  • Don't try to remove an object if it is so far inside the ear that you can't see the tips of the tweezers.
  • Don't try to flush out an object with water.
  • Use extra care when removing an object from a child's ear.

    When trying to remove an object from a child's ear, speak to the child in a calm, relaxed voice. This will help calm the child's fear. An object that is not causing symptoms doesn't have to be removed right away. If the child is upset, it may be best to let them calm down before you try to remove the object.

  • Call your doctor if you can't remove the object. You may need care.

Don't use ear candles. There is no proof that they help to remove earwax or other objects in the ear, and they can cause serious injury.

Removing 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. When trying to remove a disc battery from the ear, keep these things in mind.

  • Don't use non-gripping instruments, such as bobby pins, cotton swabs, or matchsticks.
  • Use care to not push the battery farther into the ear.
  • Don't try to remove it if a child resists or can't hold still.
  • Don't use eardrops or sprays of any type.

    They can cause the battery to corrode more quickly and cause severe damage to the ear canal.

If you can't remove the battery, call your doctor. If you are not able to reach your doctor right away, go directly to the nearest hospital emergency department.

Removing an insect from the ear

Don't try to kill an insect that has flown or crawled inside the ear. Follow these tips to remove an insect from the ear.

  • 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.

  • Try to help the insect float out, if it didn't 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.
  • Call your doctor if you can't remove the insect. You may need care.

Don't use ear candles. There is no proof that they help to remove earwax or other objects in the ear, and they can cause serious injury.

When to call for help during self-care

Call a doctor if any of the following occur during self-care at home:

  • New or worse bleeding or drainage.
  • New symptoms, such as hearing loss or dizziness.
  • The ear canal or skin around the ear becomes red, swollen, itchy or painful.
  • Symptoms occur more often or are more severe.

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Credits

Current as of: March 9, 2022

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine