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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The so-called bulb syringes commonly sold over the counter for ear wax removal may work as advertised -- at least for some people, a new study finds.
In most cases, ear wax buildup can be managed with home treatments that soften the wax -- like placing a few drops of mineral oil or glycerin in the ear, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.
Another at-home option is ear "syringing," which involves placing drops of a wax-softening solution into the ear, then using a rubber-bulb syringe to flush the ear with water and clear the wax.
Home bulb-syringe kits are widely available in the U.S. and many other countries. But there has been little research into whether they actually work -- and no studies on whether they allow people to avoid visits to the doctor for ear wax removal.
For the new study, UK researchers followed 237 patients who visited a clinic for ear wax removal. They were randomly assigned to either use a bulb syringe at home, or have their ears "irrigated" by a nurse at the clinic.
Over the next 2 years, 73 percent of the professionally treated patients returned to the clinic for a repeat treatment. That compared with 60 percent of those in the bulb-syringe group.
And on average, patients in the syringe group had almost half the number of clinic visits versus those given a professional treatment the first time.
Presumably, some patients in the syringe group had kept the device and were using it to self-treat at home, according to study leader Dr. Richard Coppin, of The Surgery in Hampshire.
In an email, he told Reuters Health that bulb syringes could be worth a try for people bothered by ear wax.
"They appear to be effective, at least for some people," Coppin said.
And, he added, "it's probably easier to buy a bulb and clear your ears at home in your own time than to book up to be seen in a physician's office."
Despite its name, ear wax is not "wax," but a mixture of secretions from the outer ear, along with dead skin cells and hair. It is normal and necessary for healthy ears, acting as a self-cleaning agent with lubricating and antibacterial properties.
However, ear wax can accumulate inside the ear to the point where it causes an impaction and symptoms including hearing loss, "ringing" in the ears, pain or a feeling of fullness in the ear.
In those cases, wax removal may be necessary.
In general, experts advise against using cotton swabs, which tend to only push the wax farther into the ear. People should also avoid home "oral jet irrigators" -- which operate at a high pressure -- as well as so-called ear candling, which involves inserting a hollow cone-shaped device into the ear canal and lighting the exposed end.
Bulb syringes appear to be low-risk, according to Coppin. A recent research review concluded that the treatment appears "reasonably safe."
Ear irrigation in general carries some risk of perforating the eardrum. But with bulb syringes, Coppin noted, it is unlikely that a person would exert so much pressure as to harm the eardrum.
Unlike in the U.S. and many other countries, bulb syringes are not sold over the counter in the UK. Coppin and his colleagues estimate that if Britons could try bulb syringes before going to the doctor, that would nearly halve the 2 million professional ear wax removals done in the UK each year.
In the U.S., about 12 million people visit the doctor each year for ear wax buildup.
SOURCE: bit.ly/dVL4uH Annals of Family Medicine, March/April 2011.