Ear wax build up can be both distressing and annoying, especially if it is accompanied by sudden or gradual hearing loss. Fortunately the situation is most often not dangerous or permanent, and although at times a clog can be stubborn, excessive ear wax can be removed quite simply using some affordable over the counter medications or by a professional. Put your mind at ease and continue reading – we’ll be sure to get down to the root cause of your auditory issue in no time.
Here is a quick overview of what is going to be covered here. Navigate to the section which you feel best suits what you came to this site for or read all the way through to cover the entire scope of the problem. For ease of navigation, a link at the end of each section will bring you back to this table.
1. What is Ear Wax?
In medical terms, cerumen is a substance usually resembling thick petroleum jelly in consistency, produced in a range of shades ranging from yellow-orange to dark brown. It is in fact a combination of a number of bodily waste products including of course a thick, waxy substance made by glands near the entrance to the organ, dead skin and hair.
The primary function of cerumen, like many seemingly filthy bodily excretions, is to protect your ears. It does so by trapping foreign objects (like dust, sand, bugs, etc.) and preventing them from getting deep inside the ear. It also moisturizes the skin of the canal and its antibacterial/antibiotic properties kill most of the common hazardous microorganisms to the ear. A further function is to repel water and other liquids, which can annoy the sensitive skin of the duct, or get trapped, annoying the owner of the ear (which does inevitably happen in spite of the wax)!
2. What Causes Impaction?
Though for some it may seem unbelievable, the ear is actually designed to be maintenance-free. Wax is normally pushed out of the organ when chewing and talking, jumping around, running and walking. Skin also naturally grows towards the outside of the ear which further assists in the natural removal of wax. A number of factors do, however, increase the chances of excessive cerumen build up and blockages from occurring:
- The sebaceous or oil-producing glands in the ears of some people are just naturally overactive and produce abnormally high quantities of wax. Obviously, if the duct cannot get rid of the wax at the same rate it is being generated, a build-up will occur. This is simply conservation of mass.
- Some people may have a tendency to generate drier, harder wax, which depends on its actual composition. If for instance it has a higher dead skin and hair content, it will tend to be thicker and drier.
- Unnatural cleaning of the organ. This is any cleaning which you try to do yourself. So, using cotton buds, hair pins, toothpicks, your pinky finger, or any other similar tool for manually removing wax. This essentially plugs wax deeper into the canal and just makes matters worse.
- If you have to insert any object into your ear like an ear plug or hearing aid. Unfortunately, this is not always avoidable and having to deal with earwax build up is then considered a side-effect.
- Using in-ear headphones. Unlike ear plugs and hearing aids, this is avoidable – simply use over-ear headphones.
- You may have been born with thinner ducts than others which makes the natural removal of cerumen more difficult for obvious reasons. Your duct may also be unusually shaped.
- Your ear canals may also be more hairy than average which increases blockages in two ways: more hair makes wax thicker and harder, and it also has the effect of essentially making the canal narrower, causing the movement of wax out of the ear to be more cumbersome.
- Your age may also have an effect as older people often have thicker wax.
- Unusual bone growths near the entrance to the ear or along the canal. An example is surfer’s ear, which is actually an abnormal bodily response to cold wind and water.
- Infection or inflammation of the ear, for example swimmer’s ear.
2.1. When has a Blockage Actually Occurred?
One of the most obvious indications of an obstruction is a noticeable loss in hearing. This is quite often noticed when hearing in one ear is clearer than the other. Further signs may include the following:
- A definite “clogged” or backed-up feeling in the organ – noticeable discomfort
- A progressive worsening of hearing
- Itchiness inside the ear
- Ringing inside the ear or mild tinnitus
- The onset of infections which could be accompanied by an odor other than the usual smell of cerumen. In other words, a noticeably different odor than you’re used to. This can also be accompanied by a discharge.
- A loss of balance, a feeling of vertigo or dizziness
If you would like to know with 100% certainty whether you have a blockage, your GP or other health care professional can use an instrument called an otoscope to look inside your ear. A routine checkup should include an inspection of your ear with this device.
3. At What Point can Ear Wax Build Up cause Potentially Serious Issues?
When any of the above listed symptoms become particularly obtrusive, an examination by a medical professional should be performed as soon as possible. Wax build ups do put your ears at greater risk of infection as microorganisms are able to fester on the ever growing plug of oils, dead skin and hair.
Generally, the first order of treatment is ear drops, which should show an improvement in symptoms after three to five days. If symptoms persist for longer than 5 days with any home remedy, your GP should be consulted to prevent any potential damage to the ear. In particular, the development of severe persistent pain, a purulent or bloody discharge, fever, headache, coughing or a strong odor from the organ are clear signs that more advanced treatments are necessary.
4. How do you Remove Ear Wax?
It is important to resist the urge to plunge into your ear with a finger, matchstick, cotton bud, pen or other similar implement to try relieve a blockage. This is certainly not the best way to remove earwax, and most often will just make matters worse, compacting the wax and pressing it deeper into the canal. This section will cover some of the treatments to remove cerumen that have actually been proven to be safe and effective at home, followed by the treatments medical professionals apply for drawing out an ear wax impaction.
4.1. Home Treatments
IMPORTANT: Do not attempt any home treatment for removal of ear wax if an eardrum perforation is expected or possible. If you have experienced an injury to your inner ear or have had an operation performed, refer to a medical professional. It is always to better to err on the side of caution.
- Ear Wax Softening Agents
Medically referred to as cerumenolytics or more commonly as ear drops for wax, these are readily available at pharmacies as over-the-counter medications. The active ingredient in these medications is typically one or a combination of: saline solution, glycerin, mineral oil, baby oil, carbamide peroxide or even very dilute hydrogen peroxide solution. They should be dropped into the ear as directed by the package insert. These drops soften the cerumen, allowing it to move out of the organ more easily, and are also typically added prior to more robust ear wax removal techniques such as irrigation.
- Ear Wax Irrigation
In simple terms, this means rinsing of your ear. The process of irrigation is quite simple and safe provided no injuries are expected. Below are generic directions for safely and effectively performing an ear irrigation. If using an over-the-counter package, rather follow the steps included with the product. As mentioned above, irrigation is generally more effective if ear drops for wax are used prior to the process.
- Heat distilled water up to roughly body temperature. Rinsing your ears with too hot or cold water can cause dizziness.
- Fill a syringe (10-25ml) with the body temperature distilled water.
- Sitting with your head held straight up and leaning over a basin, gently push the water into your ear. If you experience any pain, reduce the pressure on the syringe even more. If you cannot rinse your ear without experiencing pain, then visit your doctor immediately.
- Once the syringe is empty, tilt your head slightly and allow the water and wax to drain from the ear.
- Repeat several times as needed with both ears.
While irrigation can be effective to clean wax from ears, it shouldn’t be performed too often. Remember, earwax is essential in protecting the organ from a whole range of nasties, and frequently rinsing them out will only put you at greater risk of infections and other problems.
Devices are commercially available that allow you to directly suck the wax out of the ear. Their effectiveness to remove ear wax, however, is commonly viewed as poor by consumers. Professional suction devices, such as those used by experienced health practitioners, are far more effective and it is generally not recommended to use the vacuum products available in store.
Possibly the most controversial at home remedy for ear wax buildup removal, ear candling involves the insertion of a pipe-shaped length of fabric into the ear, and subsequently setting it alight. The fabric is soaked in paraffin, beeswax or petroleum jelly to improve flammability, and the rising hot gases from the top of the candle are supposed to create suction at the base, drawing the ear wax impaction out of the canal.
Needless to say, most government health and safety agencies do not recommend this method to remove earwax. Cases of burns to the head and face have been reported, as well as pierced drums and damage to personal property.
It goes without saying that this is definitely not worth trying, especially on young children. Even if you manage not to injure yourself, the effectiveness of the method is very low. Rather stick to using ear drops followed by gentle irrigation. This is the safest at home remedy for relief of a blockage. If this doesn’t work, refer yourself or your loved one to a GP.
4.2 Professional Treatments
Professional removal of an ear wax plug can encompass one or more of the procedures listed here. For most people, an annual check-up at their family GP is sufficient to prevent blockages. At these appointments, the doctor should check your ears with an otoscope, and if necessary, remove any ear wax build up. In these cases, or if complications develop from a severe blockage you were unable to treat with over-the-counter drops, your GP will likely refer you to an ear nose and throat specialist. Often, the doctor will provide instructions for additional care following the treatment procedure and these, as usual, should be followed diligently.
Ear Wax Irrigation
In a similar fashion to that described under the home remedy, the doctor may also attempt to irrigate the ear using a syringe with warm water or saline solution. A course of ear drops for wax would likely have preceded this technique to enhance its effectiveness.
- Aural Toilet
In this somewhat unpleasant sounding procedure, the doctor uses a thin, curved tool with a hook or scoop at the end (known as a curette) to essentially scrape the ear wax plug out of the ear or dislodge it.
A miniature suction device can sometimes be used by professionals to vacuum out the compressed wax. A curette may also be used during this process to break up the wax plug.
5. Measures to Prevent Excessive Wax Build Up
Asking your GP to irrigate your ears once annually is likely an effective way to prevent a wax clog from ever occurring in most people. This can be done at your annual check-up, and is a quick and painless procedure. People who are more prone to ear wax impaction should consult their doctor to find out if a more frequent rinse would perhaps further reduce clogs for them.
Avoid using in-ear headphones when listening to music, rather opting for the over-the-ear alternatives. As discussed several times throughout this article, do not shove anything into your year including your fingers, cotton buds, lollipop sticks, toothpicks, etc. You will only make the problem worse. Only allow a trusted medical practitioner to place an instrument into your ear.
Ear wax build up can be effectively dealt with using both home and professional treatments, depending on the severity of the issue. This article offered some top advice on how exactly to proceed with OTC medications, and at what point to recognize that a health practitioner should be consulted in order to minimize risks of permanent damage to your precious auditory organ. Key preventative measures were also pointed out to reduce your chances of getting an impaction in the first place.
As usual, special care needs to be taken when dealing with children, and a pediatrician should be contacted the moment any pain, discharge or typical symptoms of infection are seen. The elderly are also more prone towards blockages and so more frequent inner ear examinations by a GP are recommended for those older than 50.
I hope this article was helpful and that it encouraged you to take just that little bit extra care of your ears going forward.
If you liked what you read here and found it useful, please share with your friends.