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Earwax, or cerumen, is a normal, naturally occurring substance that helps your ear stay healthy.
Earwax helps to prevent debris, dirt, and other things from entering the ear canal, and also helps to prevent infection. In fact, the ears are self-cleaning, and old earwax, along with dead skin cells, gets moved from inside the ear to the ear opening, where it eventually falls out.
In general, when earwax builds up, it naturally gets forced out of the ear. Sometimes our bodies overproduce earwax, especially if we’re stressed or afraid. If there is an overproduction, and it doesn’t get forced out of the ear, it can cause a blockage.
There are two common types of earwax:
- yellow-brown, which tends to be wet
- white-gray, which is dry
The color of earwax can vary, depending on a person’s ethnicity and health.
One study found that dry earwax is common among people of East Asian descent. Wet earwax is common among people of most other ethnicities. This is because of a mutation of a gene that aids in making the earwax wet.
There are various types of earwax and other ear discharge, so don’t panic if you see a range of colors and textures over time.
|Color of earwax||Reason|
|Yellow and soft||Newer earwax|
|Darker and firm/tar-like||Older earwax|
|Flaky and pale||Older earwax that has moved to the outside of the ear|
|Blood-tinged earwax||Scratch in the ear canal, ear injury, or side effect of wax removal|
|Runny and cloudy||Ear infection|
|Black||Earwax buildup, foreign object in the ear, and compacted earwax|
It’s always best to call your doctor if you notice earwax or discharge that is unusual for you.
There is no reason to ever insert anything into the ears to remove earwax. Earwax is only formed in the outer third of the ear canal. Using things like bobby pins or cotton-tipped applicators to “clean out” the earwax can actually push in the earwax, resulting in an impaction of earwax.
Ear candling has been touted as an alternative remedy to remove earwax, but this technique is not recommended, as it hasn’t been found to be a successful treatment and can actually cause severe burns or injury.
How to clean the ears at home
Most of the time, the ears do not need to be specially cleaned, and earwax doesn’t need to be removed.
To clean the ears, just wash the outside of the ear with a soft washcloth; nothing needs to be done internally.
How to remove heavy earwax buildup
If there is a slight buildup of earwax, many times, at-home treatments are successful. You can put a couple drops of baby oil or commercial ear drops into the ear, which should soften the wax and facilitate removal.
The day after using the drops, use a rubber-bulb syringe to squirt warm water into your ear. Tilt your head and pull your outer ear up and back, says the Mayo Clinic. This helps to straighten out your ear canal and help the earwax move out.
When you’re done, tilt your head to the side again, and let the water drain out. This might have to be repeated for a few days, depending on the level of buildup. If you don’t feel a reduction of your symptoms, call your doctor.
The only time earwax needs to be specifically removed is when there is a buildup severe enough to cause symptoms like:
Your doctor may also remove the buildup if your earwax is preventing them from properly assessing or examining the ear canal. This situation is called cerumen impaction.
A physician can remove earwax by using irrigation or ear syringing.
This involves putting water, saline, or wax-dissolving drops into the ear canal. About a half hour later, the ears are irrigated and the wax is removed.
Although there are at-home kits, it’s always a good idea to be extra careful and have a physician do it. An otolaryngologist can also manually remove the earwax.
Overall, earwax is normal and can vary in its appearance and texture. If you notice earwax that is markedly different than what you’ve seen before, it’s always good to call your doctor and check to see if there’s anything you should be on the lookout for.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of earwax buildup and at-home remedies have not been successful, your doctor might need to manually and safely remove the earwax.