Your ear canal produces a waxy oil called cerumen—this oil is more commonly known as earwax. The wax protects the ear from dust, foreign particles, and microorganisms. It also protects ear canal skin from irritation due to water. In normal circumstances, excess wax finds its way out of the canal and into the ear opening naturally, and then is washed away.
When your glands make more earwax than is necessary, it may get hard and block the ear. When you clean your ears, you can accidentally push the wax deeper, causing blockage. Wax buildup is a common reason for temporary hearing loss.
You should take great caution when trying to treat earwax buildup at home. If the problem persists, you should visit your doctor. Treatment is generally quick and painless, and hearing can be fully restored.
Some people are prone to producing too much earwax. Using cotton swabs, bobby pins, or other objects in your ear canal can also push wax deeper, creating a blockage.
You are more likely to have wax buildup if you frequently use earphones or hearing aids.
Signs of earwax buildup include:
- sudden or partial hearing loss (this is usually temporary)
- tinnitus (a ringing or buzzing in the ear)
- a feeling of fullness in the ear
Unremoved earwax buildup can lead to infection. Contact your doctor if you experience the symptoms of infection, such as:
- severe pain in your ear or pain that does not subside
- drainage from your ear
- persistent hearing loss
- odor coming from your ear
You should never attempt to dig out earwax buildup yourself. This can cause major damage to your ear and lead to infection or hearing loss.
However, you will often be able to get rid of the excess earwax yourself.
To soften earwax, you can purchase over-the-counter drops made specifically for that purpose. You can use the following substances:
- mineral oil
- hydrogen peroxide
- carbamide peroxide
- baby oil
Another way to remove earwax buildup is by irrigating the ear. You should never attempt to irrigate your ear if you have an ear injury or have had a medical procedure done on your ear. Irrigation of a ruptured eardrum could cause hearing loss or infection.
Never use products that were made for irrigating your mouth or teeth—they produce more force than your eardrum can safely withstand.
To properly irrigate your ear, follow the directions provided with an over-the-counter kit, or do these steps:
- Stand or sit with your head in an upright position.
- Hold the outside of your ear and pull it gently upward.
- With a syringe, send a stream of body-temperature water into your ear. (Water that is too cold or too warm can cause dizziness.)
- Allow water to drain by tipping your head.
It might be necessary to do this several times. If you often deal with wax buildup, routine ear irrigations may help prevent the condition.
If you are unable to clear the wax or if your ear becomes more irritated, you should seek medical treatment. The symptoms of earwax buildup can be caused by other conditions. It’s important that your doctor is able to rule those out. An otoscope (a lighted instrument with a magnifier) helps healthcare professionals to see clearly into your inner ear.
Your doctor may use irrigation, suction, or a curette (a small, curved instrument) to remove the wax buildup.
Follow your doctor’s instructions for aftercare carefully.
Most people do well after earwax removal. Hearing generally returns to normal immediately. Some people are prone to producing too much wax and will face the problem again.
"Ear candles" are marketed as a treatment for earwax buildup and other conditions, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns consumers that these products may not be safe.
Also known as ear coning or thermal auricular therapy, this treatment inserts a lit tube of fabric—which is coated in beeswax or paraffin—into the ear, on the theory that the suction produced will pull wax out of the ear canal. According to the FDA, the use of these candles can result in:
- burns to the ear and face
- punctured eardrum
- injury from dripping wax
This can be especially dangerous for young children who have trouble being still. The FDA has received reports of injuries and burns, some of which required outpatient surgery. The agency believes such incidents are probably underreported (FDA).
Health Canada (equivalent to the U.S.’s Department of Health and Human Services) tested the product and determined that ear candles have no effect in the ear and are of no therapeutic value. A 1996 study published in the journal The Laryngoscope also reported that ear candles produce no measurable vacuum pressure or suction (Seely, et al., 1996).
Check with your healthcare professional before trying to use these products.