Why Is Earwax in Your Ear?
Earwax, that yellowish-brown substance produced by the glands of the external ear, may conjure the ick factor for many people, but it actually serves a pretty important purpose. Also called cerumen, earwax results from secretions by the ceruminous glands in the outer ear canal. The secretions help lubricate the ear canal and help maintain an acidic environment that curbs development of harmful bacteria and fungi.
Movements of the lower jaw — speaking or chewing, for example — continually move the earwax toward the outer ear canal, helping cleanse the ear and push out excess wax.
Life without earwax would be a lot less comfortable; it not only helps keep the canal clean, but prevents dirt and other debris from reaching and potentially damaging the eardrum. In addition, earwax can help keep ears from feeling itchy and dry.
Earwax levels vary considerably from one person to the next. The typical amount produced can vary by age or gender, as well as other factors.
When Should Earwax Be Removed?
Normally, you needn’t remove earwax; your ears will naturally handle that function by pushing out the excess.
At times, however, the ear glands may produce more wax than necessary, and earwax blockage can occur. People who use hearing aids, wear earplugs, or push objects such as cotton swabs into their ears can be more prone to these problems.
About 10 percent of children and more than 30 percent of older and cognitively impaired patients have excessive earwax, according to a report published by American Family Physician. The excess buildup — more than the ear can remove naturally — may cause one or more symptoms such as the following:
- Itch, odor, or drainage
- Partial hearing loss
- Sensation of a plugged ear or fullness in the ear
- Humming, ringing, or buzzing in the ears, or tinnitus
- Pain in the ear
- Vertigo, dizziness, or balance problems
When earwax builds to the point of causing pain or other symptoms, or preventing a professional examination of the ear, it’s time to clean it out.
What Are the Dos and Don’ts of Ear Cleaning?
✅ DO use a warm, soft cloth — after washing or showering — to remove normal amounts of earwax at the outer ear, if needed.
✅ DO gently soften the earwax with drops of warmed olive oil, almond oil, water, or a commercial solution to remove larger amounts of earwax or an earwax plug.
✅ DO try irrigating the ear by gently rinsing it out with water.
🟥 DON’T use ear candles, which may cause serious injury and have not been proven effective in limited clinical trials.
🟥 DON’T stick cotton swabs or other objects in the ear; they can cause injury and push wax farther into the ear canal.
When Should I See a Hearing Care Professional?
Sometimes earwax buildup requires the attention of a professional who can examine your ears, determine the nature of the problem, and customize a treatment.
Treatment may include prescribing ear drops, applying wax-dissolving agents, using a suction technique, or providing another appropriate solution.
Consult your hearing care professional if one or more of the following applies:
- Your symptoms persist, especially pain or hearing loss
- Home remedies seem ineffective
- Earwax buildup is blocking your ear canal
- Your eardrum may be perforated or punctured
Earwax Buildup Can Become a Problem
Sometimes, though, earwax builds up too much. Examples of why this might happen include a high natural earwax output or debris getting stuck in your ear canal. The result is a blocked ear canal and the chance of developing hearing loss.
But the ear is a sensitive organ, and your eardrum and ear canal should be treated delicately. Many traditional ear-cleaning methods can result in hearing loss — yes, even (and especially) probing your ears with cotton-tipped swabs.
See a Hearing Care Provider to Address Earwax Buildup
We’ll inspect your ear painlessly and thoroughly. As long as we can see your eardrum, you’re in good shape. Oftentimes, earwax removal is not needed. But if we notice the following, we’ll recommend earwax removal.
- Complete blockage (plugging) of the ear canal
- Earwax that has dried up and hardened in the ear canal
- An excessive amount of earwax in the canal
- Muffled or decreased hearing
What Are the Benefits of Professional Earwax Removal?
Cotton swabs often do little more than push the buildup deeper into your ear canal, sometimes even damaging your eardrum. Our earwax-removal procedure carefully and safely clears the buildup, refreshing your ear canal by:
- Softening the wax
- Keeping the debris or wax away from your eardrum
- Removing the blockage
- Restoring hearing
What Is Earwax Removal?
Earwax removal is a safe way to clean your ears. We soften the blockage by placing a softening product, such as mineral oil or hydrogen peroxide, into your ear. After waiting a brief period, we’ll check to see if your ear is starting to clear with help from gravity.
If the buildup or debris will need repeated applications of the softening product, we’ll send you home with some softener and detailed instructions for application. You’ll return in a few days, and we’ll gently spray a water and saline solution into your ear to dislodge the wax and flush it out.
What Are the Risks Associated With This Method of Earwax Removal?
The risks are minimal, as we can confirm in advance that your eardrum is not perforated or does not have a tube; in these cases, other methods must be used. Cleaning an ear that has a perforated eardrum can result in severe pain or infection, which is why we always recommend you consult a professional for a thorough ear cleaning.
What Aftercare Is Required for Earwax Removal?
Aftercare is minimal. In severe cases, in which standard treatments are ineffective, the earwax may be removed through a process called otomicroscopy.
What Is Otomicroscopy?
In the typical ear exam, your provider uses one eye to look through a handheld device called an otoscope to inspect your ear canal and eardrum. But a more detailed, binocular ear inspection is possible using an otomicroscope, which allows your provider to get a crisp, clear view while using both hands to address any issues.
Contact us to learn more about earwax removal, otomicroscopy, or how we can help you maintain better ear health.