Earwax, what is it and why?

Earwax, known as Cerumen, is a yellowish waxy secretion in the ear canal of humans and other mammals. The skin of the outer part of the canal has special glands that produce earwax. It provides protection for the skin of the human ear canal, assists in cleaning and lubrication, and also provides some protection against bacteria, fungi, insects and water.

Some people are prone to produce too much earwax. Still, excess wax doesn’t automatically lead to blockage. In fact, the most common cause of earwax blockage is at-home removal. Using cotton swabs, bobby pins, or other objects in your ear canal can also push wax deeper, creating a blockage. If the wax is very soft and you gently rotate the Q tip when inserting it, you might be successful. But, if the wax is hard, you probably will just push it in deeper. Some Doctors use hydrogen peroxide to soften hard wax to make the removal easier.

You’re also more likely to have wax buildup if you frequently use earphones, which can inadvertently prevent earwax from coming out of the ear canals and cause blockages.

The appearance of earwax varies from light yellow to dark brown. Darker colors do not necessarily indicate that there is a blockage.

Signs of earwax buildup include:

  • sudden or partial hearing loss, which is usually temporary
  • tinnitus, which is a ringing, hissing or buzzing in the ear
  • a feeling of fullness in the ear
  • earache (can also be caused by a middle ear infection)

Un-removed (impacted) earwax buildup can lead to infection. Contact your doctor if you experience the symptoms of infection, such as:

  • severe pain in your ear
  • pain in your ear that does not go away
  • drainage from your ear canal
  • fever
  • coughing
  • persistent hearing loss
  • an unusual foul odor coming from your ear (not earwax oder)
  • dizziness

It’s important to note that hearing loss, dizziness, and earaches also have many other causes. You should see your doctor if any of these symptoms are frequent. A full medical evaluation can help determine whether the problem is due to excess earwax or another health issue entirely.

Earwax in Children

Children, like adults, naturally produce earwax. While it may be tempting to remove the wax, doing so might damage your child’s ears.

If you suspect your child has earwax buildup or a blockage, it’s best to see a pediatrician. Your child’s doctor may also notice excess wax during regular ear exams and remove it as needed. Also, if you notice your child sticking their finger or other objects in their ear out of irritation, you might want to ask their doctor to check their ears for wax buildup.

Check with your healthcare professional before trying to use these products.

Earwax in Older Adults

Earwax can also be a problem in older adults. Some adults may let wax buildup go until it gets to the point where hearing is obstructed. In fact, most cases of conductive hearing loss in older adults is caused by earwax buildup. This makes sounds seem muffled. Hearing aid use can also contribute to a wax blockage. Cleaning the ear tip/ear mold daily can help to prevent the build-up.

Softening hard Earwax

To soften earwax, you can purchase over-the-counter drops made specifically for that purpose. You can use the following substances:

  • mineral oil
  • hydrogen peroxide
  • carbamide peroxide
  • baby oil
  • glycerin

Ear Irrigation

Another way to remove earwax buildup is by irrigating the ear. You should never attempt to irrigate your ear if you have an ear injury, a perforated ear drum, or have had a medical procedure done on your ear. Irrigation of a ruptured eardrum could cause hearing loss or infection.

Never use products that were made for irrigating your mouth or teeth. They produce more force than your eardrum can safely tolerate.

To properly irrigate your ear, follow the directions provided with an over-the-counter kit, or follow these steps:

  • Stand or sit with your head in an upright position.
  • Hold the outside of your ear and pull it gently upward.
  • With a syringe, send a stream of body-temperature water into your ear. Water that is too cold or too warm can cause dizziness.
  • Allow water to drain by tipping your head.

It might be necessary to do this several times. If you often deal with wax buildup, routine ear irrigation may help prevent the condition.

Most people don’t need frequent medical help for earwax removal. In fact, the Cleveland Clinic says that a once-a-year cleaning at your annual doctor’s appointment is usually enough to keep blockage at bay.

Warning About Ear Candles

Ear candles may be marketed as a treatment for earwax buildup and other conditions, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns consumers that these products may not be safe.

This treatment is also known as ear coning or thermal auricular therapy. It involves inserting a lit tube of fabric coated in beeswax or paraffin into the ear. The theory is that the suction produced will pull wax out of the ear canal.

According to the FDA, the use of these candles can result in:

  • burns to the ear and face
  • bleeding
  • punctured eardrums
  • injuries from dripping wax
  • fire hazards

This can be especially dangerous for young children who have trouble being still. The FDA has received reports of injuries and burns, some of which required outpatient surgery. The agency believes such incidents are probably underreported.

Check with your healthcare professional before trying to use these products.

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