Earwax is perfectly normal and has an important job in keeping your ears healthy and clean. But if it builds up too much, it can become uncomfortable, affect your hearing and lead to other problems. If you naturally reach for a cotton swab to clean your ears when they feel clogged or waxy, you could be doing more harm than good. Inserting anything into your ear, even just a cotton swab, could push the wax deeper into your ear canal and increase your risk of blockage. But if you shouldn’t use a cotton swab to clean your ears, how can you safely remove earwax? Why do we even have it in the first place?
Earwax, also known as cerumen, is produced by the small glands in the skin of your ear canal. Its chief purpose is to clean and protect your ears. It does this by trapping germs, dust and dirt so they cannot go deeper inside the ear which could lead to ear infections. While you might not like the look of this light yellow to dark brown substance, it is a natural, healthy and harmless function of the ear. Normally, are our ears are self-cleaning. Everyday movements of your jaw, such as speaking or chewing, help the earwax to naturally move out of the ear and take the dead skin cells and dirt with it. People don’t normally notice when the wax comes out and it usually just washes off when you are in the bath or shower.
The colour of earwax can vary from person to person so you may notice that your earwax colour is different from someone else’s. If your earwax is brown, or even red or black, this doesn’t mean there is an infection or blockage in your ears. The colour of your earwax is determined by a combination of your body’s chemistry and oxidation.
If excess earwax collects in your ear, it can block the canal and cause you several problems such as infections and hearing loss. Earwax can become impacted when the ear canal glands produce an excess of oil, which eventually hardens and blocks the ear.
You might get more of a build-up of earwax if you:
A build-up of earwax can block your ears and cause several different symptoms. One of the most common symptoms is hearing loss. Impacted earwax is the main cause of older adults experiencing temporary conductive hearing loss. People can also experience earaches, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and a feeling of fullness in the ear. As the wax traps the bacteria in the ear, impacted earwax can lead to infections and produce some of the following symptoms:
Symptoms such as hearing loss, earaches, fevers and dizziness can be caused by several different factors, not just blocked ears. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.
Earwax normally falls out on its own and doesn’t require any treatment, However, if you think you have a build-up of earwax and it’s causing you symptoms, then you should have the earwax removed. The safest and most effective way of doing so is for your doctor to clear the impacted earwax for you.
The best way to clear any blockages caused by earwax is to ask your doctor to do it for you. They will be able to remove the earwax safely, without causing any damage to your ears. Your doctor may irrigate the ear, remove the excess wax with suction or simply scoop it out with a curette, which is a small curved instrument. However, there are also remedies you can buy over the counter to use at home. If the affected person is a child, then never attempt to remove earwax from their ears yourself. This could cause significant damage to their developing ears and in some cases, lead to hearing loss. A doctor or hearing care professional should treat your child’s ears.
Although it’s not recommended, if you do decide to remove the earwax yourself at home, do not insert anything into your ear, including cotton swabs. Cotton swabs should be used to clean the outer ear only and not be inserted into the ear. You can buy over-the-counter products to soften the earwax. If you do, make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions. You can instead use some drops of:
Once the earwax has softened, it should drain out of the ear by itself. You might find tilting your head at an angle will help with the drainage.
You must only use an irrigation kit that’s designed to be used on ears. You should also never use an irrigation kit if you have previously had any medical procedures within your ear or have had an injury to the ear. You could risk perforating your eardrum.
If trying to remove the blocked earwax yourself hasn’t worked or you have noticed that your hearing has deteriorated, then you should speak to your doctor. If your ears are prone to getting blocked with earwax or you wear hearing aids, it’s a good idea to arrange regular ear cleaning appointments with your doctor to prevent earwax build-up.
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