People are putting lit candles in their ears! Learn about ‘ear candling’ and why doctors say it’s unsafe

The medical fraternity warns against the alternative therapy of ear candling to remove earwax, which is gaining popularity in India.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Dec 14, 2023 | 9:00 AMUpdated Dec 14, 2023 | 9:43 AM

People are putting lit candles in their ears! Learn about ‘ear candling’ and why doctors say it’s unsafe

In a startling video posted on X by Hepatologist Dr Cyriac Abby Philips, popularly known as @TheLiverDoc, viewers were shown a worrying practice. The footage is a recording from Dr Zareena Jasmine’s clinic Back to Balance, located in Kerala.

The video shows a long, hollow cone, seemingly drenched in paraffin wax, being inserted into a person’s ear, followed by the lighting of its tapered end. This procedure is referred to as “ear detox” or “ear candling”.

Dr Philips, someone who debunks several alternative therapies that have no scientific backing, categorically labels the practice shown in the video as “dangerous”.

To delve deeper into the risks associated with this trend, South First spoke to ENT specialists to understand the potential harm this method poses, including the possibility of inner ear damage.

Doctor Authored Article: Can earwax blockage cause hearing loss?

What is ear candling?

According to a case study published in 2007, ear candling is a method where the practitioner places a hollow candle (made from a fabric tube soaked in beeswax, paraffin wax) in the external auditory canal.

The candle is then lit and burnt for about 15 minutes. After the procedure is finished, a brown waxy substance, believed by ear candling practitioners to be a mixture of earwax, debris, and bacteria, is left in the candle stub.

The study says that ear candling can be performed by beauticians, alternative therapists, or by patients using kits at home. This is in the UK.

In India, however, doctors said that it is usually performed by alternative therapists.

What is the purpose of ear candling?

Screen grab from the video shared on X.

Screengrab from the video shared on X. Ear candling being performed on a woman. (Screengrab)

Advocates of ear candling assert that the heat generated by the burning candle creates a vacuum effect. They believe that this suction draws out earwax and various impurities from the ear canal, accumulating them within the candle’s hollow space.

It is also being used to try to relieve sinus pain, cure ear infections, help relieve tinnitus and vertigo, and even strengthen the brain!

For the process, the individual undergoing the treatment lies on their side, positioning one ear downwards. The ear candle’s narrow end is then carefully inserted into the upward-facing ear’s opening by a practitioner, who ensures a snug fit.

Typically, a protective disc is placed midway down the candle to catch any melting wax. However, doctors argue that these so called “safety barriers” are often makeshift, crafted from materials like aluminum foil or paper plates, and may not always be effective.

Supposed benefits of ear candling

  • Removes wax or any other dirt in the ear canal
  • Treats sore throats
  • Helps in cold and flu
  • Purifies blood in the brain
  • Improves mental clarity
  • Reduces pain in the ear or even in the head
  • Reduces sinus and vertigo

However, doctors clarify that these claims do not make much sense, and add that there is currently no research or evidence to show that ear candles do what people claim they do.

Also Read: ‘Don’t eat curd when you have cold!’ — Is there any merit to this? 

Why ear candling is not a safe option

The medical community has been quick to respond to this trend. Health professionals South First spoke to outline several risks associated with ear candling.

Otoscope used by an ENT. (Wikimedia Commons)

Otoscope used by an ENT. (Wikimedia Commons)

Speaking to South First, Dr HK Susheen Dutt, Senior Consultant and ENT Specialist, Fortis Hospital, Bannerghatta Road in Bengaluru, explained that ear candling is gaining traction in India and other countries, but it comes with significant risks.

“The procedure is performed blindly, without any visual guidance, which is contrary to medical practices where magnification is used to visualise the ear canal. For example, during professional earwax removal, an otoscope is used for clear visibility.”

He says that the ear canal is a narrow, sensitive passage, measuring less than a centimetre in diameter. Introducing any foreign object, especially a lit candle cloth, into such a delicate area is fraught with danger.

One of the most concerning aspects of ear candling is the introduction of heat into the ear. Dr Dutt firmly stated that introducing any form of heat, especially a lit object, into the ear is highly dangerous. The ear passage, lined by skin, can be easily damaged by heat.

Also Read: Doctors found a living botfly larva in Bengaluru woman’s scalp

No evidence to detox claim

Meanwhile, Dr Achyuth Panuganti from Dr Achyuth’s Head-Neck Cancers, ENT & Skull Base Clinic in Secunderabad, told South First, “First of all, there is no evidence that this procedure is safe and also meets all the claims being made. Medically, we did not learn about this procedure. We don’t know for what indications they are doing this procedure and who is authorised to do this. Whether they are trained or not is not known.”

He said that for any kind of ear infection or ear condition, there is proper modern medication available, there are recommended treatments — both medical and surgical management. “There is no lacuna when it comes to treatment of any ear condition we know,” he stated.

“If there is a diagnosis, then definitely there is a treatment in modern medicine for any ear condition. This ‘detoxifying’ is absolutely baseless,” he charged.

Possible damage to the ear

Dr Panuganti explained that there is something known as the tympanic membrane inside the ear, which is 0.1 mm in thickness. If air or wax or toxins are sitting on that and if there is any perforation, then the middle ear will be exposed.

Eardrum perforation. (Kids Health)

Eardrum perforation. (Kids Health)

Once that happens, the person will be more vulnerable to giddiness because the body’s balance mechanism is affected. The system of balance in the inner ear — the vestibular system — includes three fluid-filled loops called semicircular canals, which respond to the rotation of the head.

“Also, the bones of the ear that are involved in sound production will be exposed, which means there are chances of infection and erosion. So such procedures should not be practiced and should not be encouraged either,” he stated.

Dr Panuganti hoped the National Medical Commission would take note of such content and take action against such people and such procedures. Meanwhile, he said that he would bring this up with doctors of the ENT association and see how they can stop such practices.

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Complications of ear candling

Burns and Injuries: The open flame can cause serious burns to the face, hair, and inner ear. There’s also a risk of hot wax dripping into the ear, potentially causing injury.

Blockages: Contrary to removing wax or toxins, the procedure can lead to wax being pushed further into the ear canal, creating blockages.

Eardrum perforation: In some cases, the procedure has led to perforated eardrums, a serious condition that can lead to hearing loss.

No detoxifying effect: Medical experts assert that there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that ear candling can remove toxins from the body.

Is it necessary to remove earwax?

Contrary to popular belief, not all earwax needs to be removed. Dr Dutt clarified to South First that earwax plays a protective role, especially in children. It acts as a barrier against foreign objects like beads or seeds, preventing them from reaching the eardrum (tympanic membrane).

Removal is only necessary when wax impacts hearing or leads to infection.

Warm saline irrigation done by an ENT specialist. (Wikimedia Commons)

Warm saline irrigation done by an ENT specialist. (Wikimedia Commons)

Although many people dislike earwax, doctors clarify that it is actually a self-cleansing, lubricating, and antibacterial substance for the ear canal. People without enough earwax often have dry, itchy ears.

Earwax naturally works its way out of the ear canal during motions such as chewing or swallowing. Once outside of the ear canal, earwax dries up and flakes away.

Earwax can build up in the ear canal. This most often occurs when a person has been digging their finger into their ear and pushing wax deeper into the canal. Anything a person puts in their ear, from cotton swabs to paper clips, can contribute to earwax build-up.

Dr Dutt pointed out that earwax varies in consistency and not all types can be removed through suction. “In the Indian population, many people produce hard wax, sometimes as hard as stone, which requires different treatment,” he stated.

Certified ENT doctors recommend using wax softeners followed by either a wax hook, warm saline irrigations, or a negative suction machine — all only under medical supervision.

Also Read: Man who refused modern medicine for diabetes, fatty liver loses survival chance

Symptoms of earwax blockage 

  • Earache or pain
  • Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears
  • Partial hearing loss
  • Discharge from the ears
  • Bad-smelling ears
  • Itchy ears
  • Feeling of the ear being plugged or full

Misguided home remedies and practices

Dr Dutt also addressed common but misguided practices people often use for ear care, such as inserting garlic oil, heated ground oil, or even sharp objects like hairpins or keys into the ear.

These practices can be harmful and are not recommended, he reiterated.

He clarified that there are several beliefs that with ageing, wax formations also increase and people should remove the wax once in few days.

“This is not true. Wax formation is based on genetics. It is definitely not age-related. Many put safety pins, vehicle keys, hooks, ear buds, etc, to remove wax. Some even use garlic oil, juice, kerosene in the ear for pain relief or removal of wax. Remember, any foreign object in the ear is dangerous,” Dr Dutt stressed.