Earwax Buildup

What Is Earwax Buildup?

Earwax is produced by glands in the ear canal. Although scientists are still not completely sure why we have earwax, it does trap dust and other small particles and prevent them from reaching and possibly damaging or infecting the eardrum. Normally, the wax dries up and falls out of the ear, along with any trapped dust or debris. Everyone makes ear wax, but the amount and type are genetically determined just like hair color or height. Smaller or oddly shaped ear canals may make it difficult for the wax our ears make naturally to get out of the canal. This can lead to wax impactions. This is earwax buildup.

Earwax Buildup Symptoms

Symptoms of an earwax impaction include:

  • Decreased hearing

  • Dizziness

  • Ear pain

  • Plugged or fullness sensation

  • Ringing in the ear

  • Cough

More serious symptoms could mean you’ve developed an infection. Watch for:

  • Serious pain

  • Drainage from the ear canal

  • Itching 

  • Odor coming from the ear

  • Fever 

When to Seek Medical Care for Earwax

See your doctor if you think you may have any symptoms of an earwax impaction. Other conditions may cause these symptoms and it is important to be sure earwax is the culprit before trying any home remedies.

Go to the hospital if:

  • You have a severe spinning sensation, loss of balance, or inability to walk

  • You have persistent vomiting or high fever

  • You have sudden loss of hearing

Earwax Buildup Causes

Blockage, or impaction, often occurs when the wax gets pushed deep within the ear canal. Earwax blockage is one of the most common ear problems doctors see.

  • The most common cause of impactions is the use of cotton swabs (and other objects such as bobby pins and rolled napkin corners), which can remove superficial wax but also pushes the rest of the wax deeper into the ear canal.

  • Hearing aid and earplug users are also more prone to earwax blockage.

Earwax Buildup Diagnosis

A doctor can diagnose earwax blockage (or eardrum perforation) by listening to your symptoms and then looking into your ear with an otoscope (ear-scope).

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Medical Treatment for Earwax Blockage

Your doctor may use one or a combination of methods to remove your earwax: 

  • They can scoop it out with a small plastic spoon called a curette. 

  • They can irrigate your ear with warmed water, sodium bicarbonate, or other prescription-strength ear drops and flush the wax out. 

  • They can use gentle suction to remove the wax.

Earwax Treatment and Self-Care at Home

If you don’t have a perforation (hole) or a tube in your eardrum, your doctor may recommend that you try an earwax removal method at home.

  • You can soften earwax by putting a few drops of baby oil, mineral oil, glycerin, hydrogen peroxide, or over-the-counter wax softening drops such as Debrox or Murine into the affected ear canal. That may be enough to get the wax to come out.

  • After you’ve tried a wax softener for a few days,  usea  bulb-type syringe to gently flush the ear with warm water. The water should be at body temperature to help prevent dizziness.

  • You can buy over-the-counter kits that combine softening drops with an irrigation system. Your doctor can explain which one might work for you and how to use it.

  • It may take several tries to get home treatment to work. If it doesn’t, see your doctor.

Ear candling is not recommended. The procedure uses a hollow cone made of paraffin and beeswax with cloth on the tapered end. The tapered end is placed inside the ear, and an assistant lights the other end, while making sure your hair does not catch on fire. In theory, as the flame burns, a vacuum is created, which draws the wax out of the ear. Limited clinical trials, however, showed that no vacuum was created, and no wax was removed. Furthermore, this practice may result in serious injury.

Earwax Buildup Complications

Problems can happen if earwax isn’t removed carefully and correctly. These include:  

Permanent hearing loss from acoustic trauma

Preventing Earwax Buildup

Earwax blockage can often be prevented by avoiding the use of cotton-tipped swabs (like Q-tips) and other objects that push the wax deeper into the ear canal.

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Earwax Buildup Outlook

Even if you clean your ears correctly, you may still get wax buildup, whether it’s because of the way your ear canals are shaped or the way your body makes wax. If it’s more than an occasional problem for you, you may need to make softening agents a regular routine.

 
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on July 15, 2020

Sources

              SOURCES:
            

Gayle M Galletta, MD, Assistant Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Massachusetts.

Rakel: Textbook of Family Medicine, 8th ed.

Mayo Clinic: “Earwax Blockage,” “Swimmer’s Ear.”

Roberts: Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine, 5th ed.; Chapter 64

American Family Physician:“Cerumen Impaction.” 

 


 

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