Facts About Ear Wax: buildup causes and removal

Excessive ear wax buildup can cause infections and hearing loss, so many people take steps to remove the wax before it causes blockages in the ear canal. Unfortunately, the most common approach to ear cleaning – the use of cotton swabs – can push ear wax further into the ear canal, increasing the risk of blockages. So how should you remove ear wax? For that matter, what causes ear wax in the first place?

What causes wax in ears?

Ear wax is a natural substance and one which plays a vital role in keeping the ear canal clean. Glands in the ear canal produce cerumen, a waxy oil that forms ear wax.

As ear wax drains through the ear canal, it lubricates the canal while also trapping dirt, dust, and foreign particles. The wax and debris eventually reach the outer ear where they can wash away. Ear wax also traps bacteria and microorganisms, protecting the ear from infection. 

If excess ear wax accumulates, it can block the canal, resulting in temporary hearing loss, infections, and other symptoms. 

What causes ear canal blockages?

Impacted ear wax has multiple causes. Sometimes the ear canal glands produce too much oil, which hardens and blocks the ear.

Inserting cotton swabs or other objects into the ears to clean them can push ear wax deeper into the canal and cause a blockage. Frequent use of earphones, swimming plugs, work-required earplugs, and hearing aids also increases the risk of impacted ear wax.

Other causes of ear wax blockages include:

  • Bony obstructions such as exostosis or osteoma
  • Eczema and other skin diseases
  • Excess ear wax produced in response to injury
  • Infections
  • Narrow ear canals

Is brown ear wax normal?

Brown ear wax may look alarming, but it’s perfectly normal. Ear wax can vary in color from person to person. The presence of brown (or even black or red) ear wax does not mean you have a blockage or infection. The variation in color is caused by a combination of oxidation and a person’s body chemistry. 

Signs of ear wax blockage

Blocked wax in ear canals can cause a number of symptoms. Hearing loss is common – so common in fact that impacted ear wax is a leading cause of temporary conductive hearing loss in older adults. Other symptoms include tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears), earaches, and a feeling of “fullness” in the ear.

Impacted ear wax can lead to ear infections as the wax traps bacteria in the ear. Infections caused by ear wax blockages can produce symptoms such as:

  • Coughing
  • Dizziness
  • Ear drainage
  • Ear pain that doesn't subside
  • Fever
  • Odors from ears
  • Persistent hearing loss
  • Severe ear pain

Hearing loss, fevers, earaches, and dizziness have multiple causes. If you experience any such symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor. 

When should you remove ear wax?

If you’re experiencing symptoms of blockage, you should have ear wax removed. The best way to clear impacted ear wax is to seek help from your doctor, but there are over-the-counter remedies you can use. 

If the affected person is a child, do not try to remove wax from their ears yourself. Doing so can damage the child's developing ears and potentially cause hearing loss. Instead, let a doctor or licensed hearing care professional treat a child’s ears.

How should you remove ear wax?

The safest way to clear ear wax blockages is to let your doctor handle the issue. Medical professionals can remove impacted wax without damaging the ear. During treatment, the doctor may irrigate the ear, use suction to remove excess wax or scoop out the wax using a small curved instrument called a curette.

While it’s not recommended, if you do choose to remove your ear wax at home, do not insert any object into your ear, including cotton swabs. Swabs should only be used to clean the outer ear. You may be able to soften ear wax with a few drops of the following:

  • Baby oil
  • Carbamide peroxide
  • Glycerin
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Mineral oil

Once softened, ear wax may drain out of the ear canal by itself. You can also use over-the-counter products to irrigate the ear. If you chose to do so, follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully. 

Do not use irrigation kits if you have an ear injury or have had any medical procedures within the ear because doing so could cause a perforated eardrum. It’s also important to only use irrigation kits designed for ears. Irrigation products for the mouth or teeth can damage the ear. 

Most people should only need to remove wax in ear canals at their annual doctor’s appointment, which is more efficient and safer than home treatment. People with chronic ear wax issues may need to see their doctor every six months for a cleaning. 

If you suspect wax in ear canals is causing hearing difficulties or other symptoms, consult a medical doctor or contact a licensed hearing care professional for a hearing health consultation

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