Do your ears feel blocked up? Excess wax can accumulate sometimes and make hearing difficult. At the same time, you’ve probably read that using cotton swabs isn’t a safe way to remove the wax. Here are some tips on how to safely clean your ears, what not to do, and when you should see your doctor.

Earwax, or cerumen, is a self-cleaning agent produced your body produces. It collects dirt, bacteria, and other debris. Usually, the wax works its way out of the ears naturally through chewing and other jaw motions.

Many people never need to clean their ears. Sometimes, though, wax can build up and affect your hearing. When earwax reaches this level, it’s called impaction.

If you have impaction, you may experience symptoms like:

You may be more likely to develop excess wax if your use hearing aids or ear plugs. Older adults and people with developmental disabilities are also at higher risk. Your ear canal’s shape may make the natural removal of wax difficult.

The safest way to remove wax buildup from your ears is to visit your doctor. At your appointment, your doctor can use special instruments, like a cerumen spoon, forceps, or suction device, to clear the blockage. Many offices also offer professional irrigation.

If you choose to try to remove wax at home, the following are the safest methods to try on your own:

Damp cloth

Cotton swabs may push wax deeper into the ear canal. Use cotton swabs only on the outside of your ear or, better yet, try wiping the area with a warm, damp washcloth.

Earwax softener

Many pharmacies sell over-the-counter eardrops that soften wax. These drops are typically a solution. They may contain:

Place the specified number of drops into your ear, wait a certain amount of time, and then drain or rinse out your ear. Always follow the instructions on the package. Call your doctor if your symptoms continue after treatment.

Learn more: How to use ear drops »

Syringe

You may also choose to irrigate your ears using a syringe. In this process, you’ll gently rinse out the ear canal using water or a saline solution. This method is often more effective if you first use some type of wax softener 15 to 30 minutes before irrigating.

It’s best to warm the solution to your body temperature to avoid dizziness.

Safe ways to remove earwax

  1. Ask your doctor to remove the wax in their office.
  2. Clean the outside of your ear with a damp cloth.
  3. If you choose to use cotton swabs, don’t insert them into the ear canal.
  4. You can use earwax softener to soften earwax for easier removal.
  5. You can use a syringe to irrigate your ears.

Many people don’t need to clean their ears routinely. The wax should take care of itself. If you’re using small items, like bobby pins, cotton swabs, or napkin corners, you may push the wax deep into the ear canal. Once wax builds up, it can become impacted.

The rule you’ll hear from most doctors is to not put anything smaller than your elbow inside of your ear. In other words, don’t use sharp objects, cotton swabs, or anything else that could potentially injure your eardrum and permanently damage your hearing.

You shouldn’t attempt to irrigate your ears if:

Ear candles are another option you should avoid. The long, cone-shaped candles are inserted into the ear canal and then lit on fire to draw wax upward with suction. The fire can injure you, or you can accidentally get wax from the candle inside of your ear.

If you develop a blockage and don’t treat it, your symptoms can get worse. You may develop further ear irritation and even hearing loss. The wax may also accumulate to such a level that it may become difficult for your doctor to see inside of your ear and diagnose other issues.

The symptoms of earwax blockage include:

  • feelings of fullness in the ear
  • reduced or muffled hearing
  • an earache

They may also signal another medical problem, like an infection. Your doctor can look inside of your ears to determine if your symptoms stem from wax buildup or something else.

The signs of ear infection in adults include:

  • pain in the middle ear
  • fluid drainage
  • impaired hearing

Ear infection symptoms typically develop rapidly. If you notice pain and drainage from your ears, don’t try to treat it on your own. Make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible to get a proper diagnosis and, if necessary, medication.

If you experience earwax impaction more than once per year or have certain risk factors, tell your doctor. You may want to schedule routine professional cleanings every six to 12 months.

Beyond keeping your ears clean, follow these tips to protect them and ensure good hearing for years to come:

  • Don’t insert small objects into your ears. You shouldn’t put anything smaller than your elbow inside of your ear canal because it can cause injury to your eardrum or wax impaction.
  • Limit your exposure to loud noises. Wear protective headgear or earplugs when the noise gets too loud.
  • Take periodic breaks from using your headphones, and keep the volume low enough that no one else can hear your music. Don’t raise the volume in your car’s sound system up too high either.
  • Dry out your ears after swimming to prevent swimmer’s ear. Use a cloth to wipe the outside of the ear, and tilt your head to help remove any additional water.
  • Pay attention to any hearing changes that occur with the use of certain medications. If you notice changes, balance issues, or ringing in your ears, contact your doctor.
  • See your doctor as soon as possible if you notice sudden pain, a loss of hearing, or if you have an ear injury.

Learn more: Chronic swimmer’s ear »

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