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How do "ear candles" work? Recently my hearing became impaired, and I was advised that my ears were impacted with wax. A friend recommended that the wax could be removed if I stuck a candle in my ear and lighted the other end. To humor her, I accompanied her to a homeopathic-remedy shop. Ear candles were prominently displayed. An ear candle is a hollow paper cone impregnated with ordinary candle wax. The large end is about one inch in diameter. The other end is small enough to go into the ear. As I lay on my side with the candle in place, my friend lighted the other end. The candle burned slowly and smoothly, with (I was told) some wisps of smoke circulating downward to the small end. There was no discomfort or noticeable warmth. After about ten minutes she removed the candle and snuffed out the flame. Immediately my hearing in that ear was back to normal. The end of the cone had a considerable amount of earwax in it. The process was equally successful in the other ear. --Saxe Dobrin, Santa Monica, California

And to think I could have given this up for a job selling life insurance. Ear candling is the latest new-age fad, being to the 90s what colonic irrigation was to the 80s. I guess that's progress. While I did not subject the candles to the rigorous clinical analysis they obviously deserve, it's reasonable to suppose they work by means of "wicking." As the wax in the top of the cone burns, the wax at the bottom softens and is drawn upward, which in turn softens and draws up the wax in your ear. I got into an argument once about whether wicking was due to capillary attraction or to nature-abhors-a-vacuum, but we didn't come to any conclusions before we got to the end of the six-pack. At any rate I'm willing to believe ear candling works and is probably a sight to behold besides.

An informal poll of ear specialists elicited a mixed response, with some opining that you were crazy and the rest saying you were nuts. The procedure does present some obvious risks, such as setting your hair on fire or dripping hot wax on you. On the other hand, many doctors' idea of an efficacious treatment for "impacted cerumen" (packed-in earwax) is to pour in a "cerumenolytic" (earwax loosener) and then extract the gloppy result with a syringe. One survey of UK ear doctors found 38 percent had encountered complications using this technique, which is a polite way of saying they poked a hole in some poor sod's eardrum or otherwise made him worse instead of better. Admittedly serious problems arose in only 1 out of 1,000 cases, but jeez, this is earwax we're talking about. Not that I'm endorsing ear candling, but how much worse could it be?

The other question you're dying to ask is, why do we have earwax anyway? Typical medical response number one: earwax kills harmful bacteria. Typical medical response number two: I don't know, but number one is wrong. Take your pick.

QUESTIONS WE'RE STILL THINKING ABOUT

If you stuck your head over a pot of boiling lard for a few weeks would you gain weight? --Lee Johnson, Hermosa Beach, California

I was born in the U.S. My lover was born in Mexico and lived there until he was 12. Would it be possible through ingestion of his semen to obtain his tolerance to the bacteria in the drinking water of Mexico? If so, how much would it take? If not, how about a partial blood transfusion? STDs have already been ruled out. --Name withheld, Chicago

Several of our patients have told us of their fear that if they burp, fart, and sneeze simultaneously they will die. Like so many other areas of concern to the general public, this topic was inadequately covered, if at all, in our medical education. Furthermore, many of us have experienced the simultaneous occurrence of two of these physiological events (Tim Allen, personal communication). The law of averages suggests for some of us a triple event (the "Big One"?) may eventually occur. If it were to be accompanied by sudden death, this would be a subject of legitimate anxiety. Thank you for your attention to this question. --Richard Levenson, MD, Mark Swaim, MD, PhD, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina

Don't mention it.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611, or E-mail him at cecil@chireader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Slug Signorino.

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