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UF Health Expert Answers FAQs on Ear Foreign Bodies

Child holding his ear

Children seem to have a fascination with putting objects into their ears. Whether it’s a marble, bead, cotton swab, pencil or even a bug, objects can easily become stuck and damage the eardrum. According to the Nationwide Electronic Injury Surveillance System, foreign bodies in children’s ears have accounted for roughly 45,000 emergency department visits nationwide each year over the past decade.

Dr. Thomas Schrepfer, an assistant professor of head and neck surgery with the University of Florida Department of Otolaryngology (Ear, Nose & Throat), took the time to answer some common questions about foreign bodies in children’s ears and what to do — or not do — about them.

What are the most common foreign objects found in children’s ears?

Beads, popcorn kernels, paper products, pens and pencils, crayons, BBs and pellets, and desk supplies, especially erasers, are some of the objects we see most often. They are small and easy to wedge into their ear. We also see earrings and jewelry, but these are mostly embedded in the earlobe rather than inside the ear canal. This might be a Florida thing, but I also see a fair number of bugs in children’s ears.

What should I do if my child has something stuck in their ear?

This depends on what the object is and how long it has been in the ear. No matter what type of object is in your child’s ear, if you or an outside provider feel uncomfortable removing it, or if the patient seems too stressed by the situation, please see an ENT to assist. They are professionally trained and can ensure no damage is done to your child’s ear during the removal.

Here are some tips on how to handle some of the most common objects we encounter:


If the bug is alive, this tends to cause immediate discomfort and, most of the time, panic. To alleviate the symptoms, the bug must be exterminated, which can be done with a few drops of mineral oil or lidocaine.

If it’s a small bug, you can try to flush it out, but be careful to avoid too much irrigation or manipulation, which can cause irritation. Try to avoid multiple “touching points” such as removal attempts by the patient and/or parent, followed by urgent care staff, a UF Health emergency room and finally an ENT specialist. The less attempts by different individuals, the better.


Since beads are relatively large, round and smooth, they tend to get stuck easily in the ear canal and can be tricky to remove. Again, avoid manipulation and removal attempts by anyone other than professionally trained providers (ENTs).

Easy-to-grasp objects

Papers and small, easy-to-grasp foreign bodies can be removed with tweezers as long as they are visible and clearly not in proximity to the eardrum. Try to avoid putting moisture or irrigation on any type of organic foreign body since this could cause it to swell up inside the ear.

Button batteries

If your child has a button battery stuck in their ear, this is a serious emergency and can cause caustic injury. This means the battery can burn or corrode the skin and needs to be removed immediately. If you cannot get into an ENT clinic the same day, we recommend seeking treatment at a larger pediatric emergency department.

What are the potential dangers of foreign objects in my child’s ear?

The symptoms and potential dangers related to objects in your child’s ear are again dependent on what the object is and how long it’s been in there.

Sometimes your child may feel nothing at all, but the first symptom is typically discomfort. Minor risks include irritation and damage to the ear canal skin. Fortunately, they heal easily with topical treatment once the foreign body is removed.

If the object in the ear is an organic material that has expanded after becoming wet, it can cause swelling or discharge, additional pain, irritation or potential infection. Infection is more likely if the object has been in place for a while, if part of the object still remains in the ear or if a second undetected object is stuck in the ear. Infection can occur even after the object is removed. Symptoms of infection include pain, bleeding, muffled hearing or deafness, fluid or discharge from the ear, redness and swelling of the ear canal or a fever.

More often, the danger comes from removal attempts by a nonprofessional rather than damage from the actual foreign body itself. If the individual attempting to remove the object isn’t trained, the child is at risk for eardrum injury or damage or potential hearing loss. In addition to eardrum damage, there are also risks of damage to the ossicular chain, which can cause vertigo or significant hearing loss.

Is there anything I can do to prevent foreign objects from becoming stuck in my child’s ear?

It's difficult to prevent situations like this. If possible, teach your child not to insert objects into their ears and make sure children, especially those under 3 years, cannot reach batteries (especially small button batteries), needles, pins, coins, marbles, the tops of ballpoint pens or polystyrene beads.

You can also take the following precautions:

  • Choose toys that are age appropriate.
  • Be aware that toys may have small parts that can be removed.
  • Encourage older children to keep their toys away from younger children.
  • Supervise children under the age of 3 at all times when they are in contact with small objects, including food items such as peas, beans or watermelon seeds.

Foreign bodies in children’s ears are common but preventable and treatable. It’s important to take steps to reduce opportunities for your child to access objects that might find their way into tiny ears. If you do find an object in your child’s ear and can’t easily remove it, seek assistance from a trained specialist as quickly as possible to prevent further discomfort or damage.

Please visit our ear emergencies page to learn more on this topic.

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Peyton Wesner
Communications Manager for UF Health External Communications (352) 273-9620