What is cerumen?
Cerumen, also called earwax, is made by the body to protect the ears. The earwax has both lubricating and antibacterial properties. Most of the time, the old earwax is moved through the ear canal by motions from chewing and other jaw movements. At that time, it reaches the outside of the ear and flakes off. Cerumen is produced in the outer part of the ear canal, not deep inside the ear.
What does it mean when cerumen becomes impacted?
We say that cerumen is impacted when it has built up in the ear canal to such a point that there may be signs that something is not quite right. It is important to note that, ideally, ears might never need cleaning—they are designed to clean themselves. Impaction often happens when people use items like cotton swabs or bobby pins to try to clean their ears. This only pushes the earwax farther into the ears and can also cause injury to the ear.
What are the symptoms of cerumen impaction?
- A feeling of fullness in the ear
- Pain in the ear
- Difficulty hearing, which may continue to worsen
- Ringing in the ear (tinnitus)
- A feeling of itchiness in the ear
- Discharge from the ear
- Odor coming from the ear
Who experiences earwax buildup?
Earwax buildup can happen to anyone. However, it is more likely to occur in:
- People who use hearing aids or earplugs
- People who put cotton swabs or other items into their ears
- Older people
- People with developmental disabilities
- People with ear canals shaped in such a way as to impede natural wax removal
How is cerumen impaction diagnosed?
Your health care provider can look into your ears with a special instrument, called an otoscope, to see if earwax buildup is present.
How is cerumen impaction treated?
Earwax removal can happen in a few ways; some of these methods can be done at home.
- Cleaning the outside of the ear by wiping with a cloth.
- Putting cerumenolytic solutions (solutions to dissolve wax) into the ear canal—these solutions include mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, water, peroxide-based ear drops (such as Debrox®), hydrogen peroxide, and saline solution.
- Irrigating or syringing the ear—this involves using a syringe to rinse out the ear canal with water or saline, generally after the wax has been softened or dissolved by a cerumenolytic.
- Removing the wax manually using special instruments—this should be done only by a health care provider who might use a cerumen spoon or suction device.
Note: Irrigation should not be done by any persons who have, or suspect they have, a perforation (hole) in their eardrum or tubes in their ear.
What are possible complications of cerumen impaction?
If left untreated, excessive earwax may cause symptoms of cerumen impaction to become worse. These symptoms might include hearing loss, ear irritation, etc. A build-up of earwax might also make it difficult to see into the ear, which may result in potential problems going undiagnosed.
How can cerumen impaction be prevented?
Do not stick anything into your ears to clean them. Use cotton swabs only on the outside of the ear. If you have a severe enough problem with earwax that you need to have it removed by a health professional more than once a year, discuss with them what the best method of prevention (if any) is for you.
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 8/14/2009…#14428