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Ear Candling: Is It Just a Ball of Wax?
What Is Candling?
The origins of candling are uncertain, but its practice may date back to ancient times. Practitioners of candling (also called coning) use special ear candles made of linen or cotton soaked in wax or paraffin. The candles are hollow and about 10 inches long. Practitioners say that when a candle is placed in the ear and lit, a low-level vacuum is created, which sucks wax and other debris out of the ear canal.
What Are the Purported Benefits?
Many claims are made about the effects of candling. However, there is no scientific evidence to support these claims. In addition, there is not even plausible reasoning for how candling might work. For example, proponents say that candling can cure the following conditions:
- Tinnitus —ringing in the ears
- Otitis media —a middle ear infection
- Sinus pressure and pain
- Meniere's disease —an inner ear disorder that causes hearing problems and vertigo
But, each of these conditions occurs on the inner side of the eardrum—out of reach of candles. For other conditions closer to the site of candling— swimmer’s ear or temporomandibular disorder (TMD)—there is no evidence that it is helpful. Many other health benefits associated with candling are vague or scientifically meaningless. Some examples are "strengthen the brain," "purify the mind," "stabilize emotions," "clear the eyes," "purify the blood," and "release blocked energy."
Using candling to treat ear-wax build-up has also been criticized. According to one group of researchers, the negative pressure needed to pull sticky wax from the ear canal would have to be so powerful that it would rupture the eardrum during the process. After actually measuring the pressure during candling, the researchers found that, in fact, no negative pressure was created. In any case, there are much safer and easier ways to remove wax.
What Are the Safety Concerns?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has received reports of ear candles causing burns, perforated eardrums, and blocked ear canals, which requires outpatient surgery to correct. It is also worrisome that ear candles are promoted for use in children. Babies and young children are more likely to move during candling, which increases the risk of burns and candle wax plugging the ear canal. Also, because their ear canals are smaller, there is greater risk of injury.
The FDA considers the ear candle an unregulated medical device and has taken action to prevent the sale and distribution of ear candles in the United States.The FDA has warned consumers about the risk of serious injury from candling. Despite these actions, ear candles are still widely available at health food stores and online.
How Should You Clean Your Ears?
According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, earwax is healthy in normal amounts and serves to coat the skin of the ear canal where it acts as a temporary water repellent. Not having earwax may result in dry, itchy ears. The ear canals are naturally self-cleaning. Earwax and dead skin cells are constantly moving toward the ear opening, where they dry, flake, and fall out. Follow these tips for proper ear care:
- Wash the external ear with a cloth over your finger, but do not insert anything into your ear canal.
In cases of earwax blockage, try home treatments to soften wax, such as:
- A few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, or glycerin
- Commercial drops
- If home treatments do not work or earwax is compacted, see a doctor who uses instruments that are considered safe and effective.
- If you have persistent pain or other problems with your ears, see your doctor.
When it comes to ear candling, many doctors agree with the old admonition, “Never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear.”
American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery
National Library of Medicine
Canadian Society of Otolaryngology
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2/26/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance. http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Ear candles: risk of serious injuries. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/SafetyInformation/SafetyAlertsforHumanMedicalProducts/ucm201108.htm. Updated September 5, 2013. Accessed April 2, 2014.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 04/2014
- Update Date: 04/02/2014