Ear Irrigation

Article Author:
Jessica Schumann
Article Editor:
Nicholas Pfleghaar
2/7/2020 1:41:51 PM
PubMed Link:
Ear Irrigation


The American Academy of Otolaryngology defines cerumen impaction as "an accumulation of cerumen that is associated with symptoms, prevents the necessary assessment of the ear, or both." Irrigation of the ear is one method providers can use to treat cerumen impaction when appropriate.

Anatomy and Physiology

Following treatment of cerumen impaction, one should be able to evaluate the tympanic membrane anatomy. The normal coloring of a tympanic membrane is pearly gray and translucent. There is a cone of light in the anterior, inferior quadrant of the tympanic membrane, and it points towards the nose. One should also be able to observe the umbo and the handle of the malleus. The tympanic membrane is somewhat conical in shape, with a concavity noted at the umbo. A normal tympanic membrane has no perforation.

If you observe a bulging tympanic membrane, there is usually a distortion of the cone of light, and there is little to no visibility of the umbo and the handle of the malleus. This can indicate an infection or fluid in the middle ear space, a serous or purulent otitis media. 

A eustachian tube dysfunction usually causes a retracted tympanic membrane.

Cold water should not be used for ear irrigation; the water temperature should be warm and close to the patient's natural body temperature. Cold water on the tympanic membrane can cause a sensation of dizziness due to cranial nerve VIII, the vestibulocochlear nerve. The vestibulocochlear nerve has two parts: the vestibular nerve and the cochlear nerve. The semicircular canals of the inner ear are innervated by the vestibular nerve, which is responsible for orientation in space, balance, and coordination. The cochlear nerve is responsible for promoting hearing. [1]


Cerumen impaction irritates the ear canal with itching, pain, chronic cough, or decreased hearing. Another indication of impactions is an inability to visualize the tympanic membrane due to cerumen when inspection of the tympanic membrane is needed.[2]

Ear irrigation can also be used for caloric stimulation. This method is discussed in a different topic. [3]


There are a few contraindications to performing irrigation of the ear including lack of patient consent. These contraindications are a patient's inability to sit upright, a patent tympanostomy tube, a patient who is unwilling or unable to sit still, foreign body present in the ear canal, perforated tympanic membrane, an opening into the mastoid, and severe swimmer's ear (otitis externa). Also, a history of middle ear disease, ear surgery, inner ear problems (especially vertigo), or radiation in the area is an additional reason to choose another method for cerumen dis-impaction.


Face Shield (universal precautions)

To safely perform ear irrigation, one should use an otoscope. You will need your cerumenolytic of choice. The water you will use for irrigation must be warmed before use. You can either use a thirty milliliter to a 60-mm syringe with a 16 or 18 gauge intravenous (IV) catheter attached (with the needle removed) or a pulsating water device (such as a WaterPik) to irrigate the impacted cerumen out of the ear. You will also need an ear irrigation basin or emesis basin to catch the water and pieces of cerumen as it leaves the ear.

Due to the availability of syringes and IV catheters when compared to pulsating water devices, the syringe and IV catheter method is more common.

A cerumen spoon or alligator forceps can be used to remove loose cerumen pieces following the ear irrigation procedure.


An assistant can help by holding traction on the pinna. This straightens the ear canal, allowing for more efficient and effective cerumen removal.


Some providers may choose to soften the wax before irrigation. Multiple agents may be used including mineral oil, 1% sodium docusate solutions, and carbamyl peroxide solutions.

Warm the solutions and the water that will be used during the irrigation to near body temperature to prevent dizziness. Cold solutions put in the ear are likely to have an uncomfortable effect on the patient, and it may make them dizzy or nauseous.

If using an IV catheter and syringe, ensure the needle is removed from the IV catheter.


  1. Ask the patient to sit upright. Place your cerumenolytic of choice in the external auditory canal and leave it in the ear for fifteen to thirty minutes before initiating irrigation.
  2. Draw up the warm water into the syringe and attach the IV catheter to the end of the syringe. Place the IV catheter into the external ear canal, no further than the cartilage/bone junction. The cartilaginous portion usually makes up the outer two-thirds of the external auditory canal.
  3. Hold the emesis or ear irrigation basin tightly to the skin below the ear, in an attempt to catch the water during irrigation. This will help keep the patient from getting wet.
  4. Direct the IV catheter superiorly and posteriorly in the ear canal so that the water will separate the cerumen from the tympanic membrane. Do not direct the water stream directly at the tympanic membrane, because this can cause perforation of the tympanic membrane.
  5. Following irrigation, you can remove any loose pieces of wax with a cerumen scoop or alligator forceps, being careful not to damage the external auditory canal and the tympanic membrane. 
  6. To dry the remaining moisture in the external auditory canal, apply several drops of isopropanol. This step is especially contraindicated if the tympanic membrane is ruptured.

Following prolonged irrigation:

  1. Topical steroid containing suspension drops, such as ciprofloxacin/hydrocortisone drops, may be soothing to the external auditory canal. Some providers will prescribe these for a few days following the ear irrigation procedure.
  2. Many providers prescribe antibiotic drops (example: fluoroquinolones) to patients at high risk for severe infections, such as diabetic patients. These drops are usually prescribed for several days following the ear irrigation procedure to prevent the complication of otitis externa.[4][5]


Irrigation of the ear can lead to otitis externa, vertigo, perforation of the tympanic membrane, and middle ear damage if the tympanic membrane is perforated. These complications are less common with the syringe and IV catheter technique than when compared to the pulsating water device technique.

Using a cerumen spoon to remove remaining wax can cause damage to the skin covering the external auditory canal.

Symptoms of complications include sudden pain, ringing in the ears, loss of the ability to hear, nausea, and dizziness. If a patient experiences any of these symptoms, the provider should immediately stop and examine the ear canal and tympanic membrane with an otoscope.

If the tympanic membrane is ruptured, prescribe the patient oral antibiotics to treat otitis media prophylactically. Refer the patient to an otolaryngologist for specialty consult.

Clinical Significance

It is often necessary to perform ear irrigation when cerumen if the patient is symptomatic or if the provider needs to evaluate the tympanic membrane.

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

A nurse or medical assistant is essential to assist with this procedure. His or her assistance will help ensure the procedure runs smoothly, therefore keeping the patient at ease.


[1] Casale J,Agarwal A, Anatomy, Head and Neck, Ear Endolymph 2018 Jan;     [PubMed PMID: 30285400]
[2] Michaudet C,Malaty J, Cerumen Impaction: Diagnosis and Management. American family physician. 2018 Oct 15;     [PubMed PMID: 30277727]
[3] Caloric Analysis of Patients with Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo., Yetişer S,İnce D,, The journal of international advanced otology, 2017 Jun 21     [PubMed PMID: 28639556]
[4] Clinical Practice Guideline (Update): Earwax (Cerumen Impaction), Schwartz SR,Magit AE,Rosenfeld RM,Ballachanda BB,Hackell JM,Krouse HJ,Lawlor CM,Lin K,Parham K,Stutz DR,Walsh S,Woodson EA,Yanagisawa K,Cunningham ER Jr,, Otolaryngology--head and neck surgery : official journal of American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, 2017 Jan     [PubMed PMID: 28045591]
[5] Hauk L, Cerumen Impaction: An Updated Guideline from the AAO-HNSF. American family physician. 2017 Aug 15;     [PubMed PMID: 28925660]