Your ear canal produces a waxy oil called cerumen, which is more commonly known as earwax. This 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 a 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, visit your doctor. Treatment is generally quick and painless, and hearing can be fully restored.
Some people are prone to produce too much earwax. Still, excess wax doesn’t automatically lead to blockage. In fact, the most common cause of earwax blockage is at-home removal. Using cotton swabs, bobby pins, or other objects in your ear canal can also push wax deeper, creating a blockage.
You’re also more likely to have wax buildup if you frequently use earphones, which can inadvertently prevent earwax from coming out of the ear canals and cause blockages.
Signs and symptoms
The appearance of earwax varies from light yellow to dark brown. Darker colors do not necessarily indicate that there is a blockage.
Signs of earwax buildup include:
- sudden or partial hearing loss, which is usually temporary
- tinnitus, which is 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
- pain in your ear that does not subside
- drainage from your ear
- persistent hearing loss
- an odor coming from your ear
It’s important to note that hearing loss, dizziness, and earaches also have many other causes. You should see your doctor if any of these symptoms are frequent. A full medical evaluation can help determine whether the problem is due to excess earwax or another health issue entirely.
Earwax in children
Children, like adults, naturally produce earwax. While it may be tempting to remove the wax, doing so can damage your child’s ears.
If you suspect your child has earwax buildup or a blockage, it’s best to see a pediatrician. Your child’s doctor may also notice excess wax during regular ear exams and remove it as needed. Also, if you notice your child sticking their finger or other objects in their ear out of irritation, you might want to ask their doctor to check their ears for wax buildup.
Earwax in older adults
Earwax can also be problematic in older adults. Some adults may let wax buildup go until it begins obstructing hearing. In fact, most cases of conductive hearing loss in older adults are caused by earwax buildup. This makes sounds seem muffled. A hearing aid can also contribute to a wax blockage.
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. Only use cotton swabs on the outer portion of your ears if necessary.
To soften earwax, you can purchase over-the-counter drops made specifically for that purpose. You can use the following substances:
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 tolerate.
To properly irrigate your ear, follow the directions provided with an over-the-counter kit, or follow 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.
Most people don’t need frequent medical help for earwax removal. In fact, the Cleveland Clinic says that a once-a-year cleaning at your annual doctor’s appointment is usually enough to keep blockage at bay.
If you’re unable to clear the wax or if your ear becomes more irritated, you should seek medical treatment. Other conditions may cause symptoms of earwax buildup. It’s important that your doctor can 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 often returns to normal immediately. However, some people are prone to produce too much wax and will face the problem again.
This treatment is also known as ear coning or thermal auricular therapy. It involves inserting a lit tube of fabric coated in beeswax or paraffin into the ear. The theory is that the suction produced will pull wax out of the ear canal. According to the FDA, the use of these candles can result in:
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.
Check with your healthcare professional before trying to use these products.
While sometimes bothersome, earwax is a natural part of your ear health. You should avoid removing earwax with objects because this can worsen the problem. In severe cases, cotton swabs can even damage the eardrum or ear canal. Medical help is usually only necessary when you have excess earwax that doesn’t come out on its own. If you suspect you have earwax buildup or blockage, see your doctor for assistance.