Earwax is a normal and an important part of keeping your ears healthy and clean. However, smelly earwax can indicate a problem. If your earwax smells, it may be caused by a medical condition or other complication.

What causes smelly earwax?

There are a number of causes of smelly earwax. Usually other symptoms are also present, and they can help you get to the root of the problem.

Excessive earwax

Excessive earwax can cause a blockage. Due to the blockage, the excessive wax may be smelly. Additional symptoms of excessive earwax are:

  • earache
  • difficulty hearing
  • drainage

Ear infection

Ear infections usually occur in your middle ear. They can be either bacterial or viral. The infections are most often painful due to inflammation and buildup. An ear infection can cause drainage and you might notice a bad smell.

Children with ear infections may have these signs and symptoms as well:

  • ear pain
  • tugging on the ear
  • trouble sleeping or hearing
  • acting grumpy
  • increased crying
  • loss of balance
  • fever at or above 100.4˚F (38˚C)
  • loss of appetite
  • headache

Adults may have the following symptoms, in addition to the drainage:

  • trouble hearing
  • ear pain

Foreign object in ear

It’s possible for both children and adults to get something stuck in their ear. Children sometimes put objects such as beads, small toys, and food in their ears out of curiosity. Children and adults may also get an insect stuck in their ear.

Along with smelly earwax, you may notice the following symptoms:

  • pain
  • hearing loss
  • infection

Swimmer’s ear

Swimmer’s ear is usually caused by water that stays in your ear after swimming. The water keeps the outer ear moist, which results in an infection. Your ear may feel like it’s still underwater, and the infection can cause smelly earwax.

Other symptoms of swimmer’s ear include:

  • itching in the ear canal
  • redness inside the ear
  • mild discomfort
  • pus
  • trouble hearing
  • fever

Cholesteatoma

Cholesteatomas are skin growths that are usually cysts. They develop behind your eardrum, in the middle part of the ear. These skin growths are noncancerous. You may develop a cholesteatoma if you have had many middle ear infections. Some are also birth defects.

Smelly earwax or drainage can be one of the first symptoms of a cholesteatoma. Other symptoms include:

  • a feeling of pressure in the ear
  • aching in or behind the ear
  • hearing loss
  • trouble with balance
  • decreased function of facial muscles

Ear cancer

Ear cancer is very rare, but can occur in the ear canal, middle ear, or inner ear. It can be caused by frequent ear infections, but the main cause isn’t known. Squamous cell cancer is the most common type of ear cancer. Other types include:

The symptoms for ear cancer depend on whether it’s located in your ear canal, middle ear, or inner ear, and may include:

  • discharge from the ear that may include blood
  • pain
  • hearing loss
  • weakness in the face, if located in ear canal
  • a lump, if located in ear canal
  • inability to move your face on the side with the tumor, if in middle ear
  • earache, if located in middle ear
  • headache or dizziness, if located in inner ear
  • ringing in the ear

How is smelly earwax treated?

It’s important to not stick objects in your ear in an attempt to get rid of the wax. This includes cotton swabs and paper clips. Trying to dig out the problem can cause objects to lodge further into the ear. It can also seriously damage your eardrum or ear canal.

Home remedies will partly depend on the cause of your smelly earwax.

Excessive earwax

  • Soften the wax with an eyedropper of baby oil, hydrogen peroxide, glycerin, or mineral oil.
  • A couple days after the wax has softened, use a rubber syringe to spray warm water into your ear. Tip your affected ear up when spraying the water. Then tilt it down for the water to run out. Don’t spray water in your ear if you have ear pain, drainage, or signs of infection such as fever. In these cases, see your doctor for a diagnosis.
  • Use a towel or blow-dryer to gently dry your outer ear.

Don’t attempt to use ear candling to remove the wax. This procedure involves placing a candle in the ear. Research shows the treatment doesn’t work and may cause injury.

If home treatment doesn’t cure your wax buildup, your doctor can remove the wax. Your doctor may use a curet, a suction, a water pick, or a rubber-bulb syringe. Earwax usually doesn’t need to be removed if it’s not causing any symptoms.

Ear infection

If you think you have an ear infection, you should see your doctor for treatment. Some indicators of an ear infection are symptoms that last more than a day, severe ear pain, and discharge. You’ll also want to see your doctor if the symptoms of an ear infection are present in a child under six months, and if the child is grumpy and can’t sleep shortly after having a cold.

Your doctor may use any of the following treatments:

  • waiting one or two weeks to see if the ear infection goes away on its own
  • pain medication
  • warm compress
  • antibiotics
  • Remove the object with tweezers if it’s visible and toward the surface.
  • Tilt your head down to try to remove the object with gravity.
  • Use a rubber-bulb syringe to try to wash the object out with warm water.
  • If an insect is stuck in your ear, use warm olive oil, baby oil, or mineral oil to try to remove it.

Foreign object in ear

If a young child has the foreign object stuck, if these methods don’t work, or if you still feel pain, discharge, or hearing loss, seek medical help.

Swimmer’s ear

Since swimmer’s ear is an infection, it should be treated by a doctor. Your treatment may include cleaning your ear with a suction or medication for the infection or for pain.

To help your ear heal, don’t swim or fly, and don’t wear a hearing aid, earplugs, or headphones until cleared by your doctor. Avoid getting water in your ear when you take a bath or shower. Use a cotton ball with petroleum jelly while bathing to keep your ear from getting wet.

Cholesteatoma

If you think you have a cholesteatoma, you should see your doctor. Their recommended treatment will likely include antibiotics and eardrops and carefully cleaning the ear. If these don’t work, you may need to have the cyst removed with surgery.

Ear cancer

If you have ear cancer, your doctor will likely recommend surgery. You may also need radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

What is the outlook for smelly earwax?

Smelly earwax is usually accompanied by other symptoms. If home remedies don’t clear up your earwax issue in a couple of days, check in with your doctor.