Even though the ears are so close to the nose, the smell of your ears no matter how bad will be lost on you. If you have good friends, however, they will have told you once or twice that they are smelly? If not, then they cringe their nose every time they lean in for a hug. You may not know why they have a reaction like that, but chances are that you’ve guessed that there must be a bad smell coming from the ears. Smelly ears are embarrassing. Any part of the body that stinks when it’s not supposed to, makes life unbearable. So, what causes the bad smell in your eyes?
What causes ears to smell?
The human ear is an exquisite structure, with many parts, all elaborately positioned for the transmission, reception, and perception of sound. Bad odor from it is usually associated with infections, but this is not the only cause. The reasons why they could smell include the following:
1. Ear infections
Infections can either happen in the outer or inner ear and can either be bacterial or fungal. When infected, it gets smelly pus that can either be green or yellow, depending on where the infection occurs. When the infection progresses, one may experience pain and if it gets chronic, the color, amount and consistency of the discharge will change.
An infection of the outer part is known as otitis externa. The condition mostly affects swimmers and divers and is, therefore, sometimes known as swimmer’s ear. It also affects children who swim on regular basis. Otitis externa can be bacterial, fungal or viral. Some of the symptoms are the pain, itching, discomfort, swelling and a foul smell from the pustular discharge.
When the middle ear gets infected, it’s known as otitis media. It’s most common in children and usually follows the seasonal flu. It’s usually self-limiting though but if it becomes chronic, then the infection spreads to the regions adjacent to the middle ear, causing destruction to the surrounding skull bone. This then leads to abscess formation that can spread to the brain and cause severe complications. In rare cases, it could be life-threatening.
Some cleaning and beauty products like creams and shampoos may cause allergic reactions and irritations that eventually turn into infections in the ear canal or surrounding parts.
Cholesteatoma is a treatable condition which affects mostly the middle ear. This is manifested by an abnormal skin growth that appears behind the eardrum or tympanic membrane. The condition occurs when the Eustachian tube fails to work properly. The eustachian tube is a thin tube running from the middle ear to the back of the nose. It helps maintain air pressure within the ear to normal. If the eardrum collapses, either due to an injury, surgery or infection, dead skin cells that pass out of the ear can create a pocket for the dead skin cells to collect. This buildup, if not treated, continues to grow until it damages the structures inside the ear (tiny bones and organs) required for hearing and balance.
Failure to treat the Cholesteatoma can cause:
- Hearing loss (complete hearing loss if not checked)
- Infections. (This leads to discharge oozing)
- Vertigo (vertigo gives one the sensation of the world spinning)
- Tinnitus (one hears sounds like they are coming from inside the body instead of the source outside the body)
- Could damage your facial nerves and weaken half your face
- In extremely rare cases, the infection spreads to the inner ear and the brain which leads to meningitis or brain abscess.
In some rare cases, some people are born with a cholesteatoma when the structures within it fail to develop normally.
Some of the signs of a cholesteatoma include a persistent smelly discharge and gradually losing hearing in the one affected. Others experience a fullness in the ear or some minor discomforts.
Foreign objects in the ear
This is most prone to children who put things in the ear like beads, tiny balls. This can go unnoticed until a smelly discharge occurs. These foreign objects can make it get infected since the tissue surrounding the object will swell and trap the said object. Depending on size, this may affect hearing too. The impacted wax will also have the same effect.
Tumors and cancers
A benign growth can obstruct the ear canal just like the foreign objects. When malignant tumors occur either in the middle or outer parts, the malignancy invades the healthy tissue causing ulcerations that can be infected by bacteria. Serious fluid oozes from it as well as pus and blood. Depending on where the growth or tumor is, hearing and balance can be affected.
When the ear is healthy, it cleans itself. One does not have to remove wax since its secreted constantly and drains itself out. The wax may therefore not be the problem, but hygiene is. If one is not clean, then bacteria that consumes dust, sweat and dead cells could release an offensive odor.
Smelly earwax or cerumen
Normal earwax is produced by the ceruminous and sebaceous glands. This then mixes with other squamous covering the outer surface of the tympanic membrane to form a sticky solid substance. The wax is essential since:
- It traps dust and dirt that could enter the canal,
- Lubricates the ear canal
- Inhibits bacteria and fungi from growing
- Keeps insects and other microorganisms from entering.
Smelly earwax occurs due to an infection and a buildup of excess wax. Pain is a clear indication there is infected especially when you tag at your external area. Other symptoms of foul-smelling wax include a pus discharge that has blood spots, ringing in sound and difficulty hearing.
Baby ear smells
Does your toddler’s ear smell? is there a dark smelly dark brown discharge? Are they itching? Then they could be infected. Smelly cerumen in children could be a sign of drainage. The drainage can be thin, thick, clear, blood-tinged or yellow. Itchiness and a discharge that’s odorless occurs in the early stages of infection (swimmer’s ear) but when your child complains of pain and you start seeing pus and an excessive discharge, then the infection has worsened.
Smelly ear with discharge treatment
Leave the ear be and avoid using cotton buds as this could worsen the situation. Inserting objects into it causes some of the smelly conditions. Do not insert water either.
In case the ear is dry, insert drops of vegetable oil without forcing it to enter. Do not use it if your eardrum is torn. Drain out the oil by lying on the side after few minutes. This is not a treatment option and therefore should not be done regularly. The vegetable oil helps to soothe it and prevent dryness form excess wax.
This can be used especially when pus is present. The antibiotic drops have steroids that help reduce swelling.
If a fungal infection is a cause, the drops should be discontinued since bacteria hampers fungus growth. Instead use antifungal agents like tolnaftate, salicylic acid or clotrimazole.
In otitis media, a culture should be administered if the antibiotic does not work in 48 hours. Nasal decongestants can also be used to drain the middle ear through the eustachian tube. Use analgesics for pain relief.
Maintain ear hygiene during treatment by cleaning off collected debris repeatedly using a cloth on the external areas.
Home treatments: foul smelling ear wax removal at home
In most cases, foul-smelling cerumen can be removed using mineral oil, glycerin, baby oil, hydrogen peroxide, commercial drops or carbamide peroxide.
Ear syringing can also be done at home or by a doctor using saline and water. The saline water should be warmed to body temperature. This will prevent dizziness. Do not use this method if your eardrum has a hole, you have diabetes or have skin problems like eczema.
In case of cholesteatoma, an Ent surgeon will carry out hearing tests and examine it. The cholesteatoma is then removed under general anesthetic. The surgeon cuts either in front, above or behind it to remove the dead skin cells and in some cases, the sponge-like mastoid bone (some of it). The mastoid bone is the part of the skull found behind the ear. They will then repair any hole that your eardrum may have.
Removal of smelly earwax should only be done by a doctor. The doctor will use an otoscope to check your canal and tympanic membrane. In case they cannot see the eardrum, a microscope and specialized tools will be used to manually remove any wax that’s blocking your canal.
It’s not safe to use pen caps or cotton swabs to dig into infected ears. This can worsen the situation or rupture your eardrum. If you have diabetes, manual removal of the wax by a doctor is recommended and you should, therefore, inform them before treatment begins.
- John Cunningham Saunders: The Anatomy Of The Human Ear
- NHS: Cholesteatoma
- Phaa.com: Otitis Externa
- Phaa.com: Otitis Media
- Livestrong: Ear Odor & Itching in a Child
- American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery: Earwax and Care