What’s Up with Earwax?

Earwax. It’s something everyone has, but what purpose does it serve and what’s the best way to get rid of it? We’ll answer those questions in this blog about one of the most common problems we see.

Earwax is also known as cerumen in the medical community and it has an important job—to protect the outer ear and ear canal, trapping dust and dirt, and keeping debris from traveling down into the ear canal. It also can prevent unhealthy bacteria from growing in the ear canal.

But where does it come from? The glands inside the ear canals secrete the substance, and it looks different for different individuals. For most, it’s yellowish or honey-colored, or sometimes grayish, and it can be sticky or dry.

In some cases, the body can produce too much earwax, like during the summer when you sweat more. In other cases, medicines, exercise or stress can contribute to earwax build-up. Our bodies also make more earwax as we get older, and some people who wear hearing aids produce more earwax.

And, earwax can be a serious problem. According to the American Otolaryngology Association, excessive earwax sends about 12 million people to see healthcare workers every year, including about 8 million who require wax removal. Those numbers don’t include individuals who try to remove earwax on their own.

What’s the best way to remove earwax?

Sometimes it’s best to leave earwax alone. For some people, it may work its way out by itself. That’s because earwax is constantly being transported out of the ear canal to the ear opening. Chewing and jaw motion assist with this natural cleaning process. Once the wax reaches the outer ear, it dries, flakes, and falls out.

But that also means others may be able to see the waxy yellowish substance as it exits the ear. For generations, we’ve been taught that good hygiene includes keeping our ears clean, but how?

Contrary to popular opinion, audiologists agree using cotton swabs to clean the ear canal is NOT a good idea. The swabs actually can push the wax deeper into the ear canal, rather than removing it. Likewise, sharp objects, like hairpins, toothpicks, fingernails and other sharp objects should NEVER be used to try to remove earwax. These items actually can push earwax further into the canal, contributing to earwax impaction or even potentially puncturing the eardrum or tearing the thin skin lining the ear canal.

You also should NEVER use ear candling to try to remove earwax. The Food and Drug Administration has issued safety warnings regarding this home remedy and it could result in serious injury. And, the “as seen on TV” devices promoted for wax removal are not safe and should not be used.

Instead, audiologists recommend using a warm, moist wash cloth to clean the outside of the ears.

What if a washcloth doesn’t do the job?

Sometimes, a washcloth doesn’t work well enough to get the wax out of your ears. More difficult-to-remove earwax usually responds to home treatments that soften wax. For example, you can try placing a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, or commercial drops in the ear. Detergent drops such as hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide (available in most pharmacies) may also help remove earwax. Be forewarned that some of these remedies can inadvertently irritate the sensitive skin of the ear canal. Audiologists and physicians can also recommend specific self-removal options.  Associated Audiologists carriers a few products they have carefully checked and recommend for self-removal/home treatment.

Though it’s not common, if you have earwax that’s close to the eardrum, it could affect your hearing and cause temporary hearing loss, tinnitus or dizziness. Audiologists and doctors call this impacted earwax. Here’s how to tell if you could have impacted earwax:

  • Earache
  • Feeling of plugged hearing or fullness in the ear
  • Partial hearing loss that gets worse
  • Tinnitus, ringing, or noises in the ear
  • Itching, odor, or discharge
  • Coughing
  • Pain
  • Infection

If you have any of the symptoms above, check with your audiologist or doctor to see if you might have excess or impacted earwax.

If you do, an audiologist or another medical professional might need to inspect your ear canals and if necessary, may either remove the earwax by washing it out, or by manually removing it using suction or special miniature instruments under lighted magnification.

Manual wax removal is preferred if your ear canal is narrow, the eardrum has a perforation or tube, other methods have failed, or if you have skin problems affecting the ear canal, diabetes or a weakened immune system.

Remember, never put any objects, even cotton swabs, in your ears. You risk pushing the wax down your ear canal and could even perforate the eardrum, a problem that might require surgery.

Should I see an audiologist?

If you are prone to repeated wax impaction or use hearing aids, consider seeing your audiologist every six to 12 months for a check-up and routine preventive cleaning.  In addition, audiologists carry special products and over-the-counter solutions for cerumen management that are safe and specific for self- use.

Associated Audiologists is Kansas City’s leader in audiologic care for hearing and balance disorders. It includes multiple doctoral-level audiologists practicing at eight convenient locations, all which offer cerumen, or earwax removal. In addition, these audiologists specialize in:

  • Hearing Diagnostics
  • Prescription and Over-the-Counter (OTC) Hearing Aids
  • Tinnitus
  • Dizziness and Balance Disorders

If you have ear pain, drainage or bleeding, see your audiologist or physician immediately. These are not symptoms of earwax impaction, and should be checked by a licensed healthcare professional.

Request an appointment with a doctoral-level audiologist.