Earwax Blockage

Untreated earwax buildup can lead to hearing loss, irritation, pain in your ear, dizziness, ringing in your ears and other issues. In most cases, earwax impaction isn’t dangerous and symptoms go away with treatment. Earwax blockage treatments include drops to soften the wax or manual removal at your healthcare provider’s office.


Cross section of ear canal with earwax blockage.
Earwax blockage happens when earwax (cerumen) builds up inside your ear canal.

What is cerumen impaction?

“Cerumen impaction” is the medical term for earwax blockage. Earwax (cerumen) plays an important role in ear health. It cleans your ears and protects them from dust, dirt and infection.

Despite its many benefits, earwax can cause issues if too much of it builds up. Cerumen impaction may result in ear pain, itchiness, ringing in your ears, hearing loss or other issues. When necessary, a healthcare provider can help you with earwax removal.

Who is most likely to develop impacted earwax?

Earwax blockage can happen to anyone. About 10% of children and 5% of adults have it.

Impacted cerumen is more likely to occur in people who:

  • Use hearing aids, earplugs or earbuds.
  • Have a lot of ear hair.
  • Have certain skin conditions like eczema.
  • Put cotton swabs or other items into their ears.
  • Are over the age of 55.
  • Have developmental disabilities.
  • Have misshapen ear canals that interfere with natural wax removal.


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Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of cerumen impaction?

Impacted earwax symptoms may include:

  • A feeling of fullness in your ear.
  • Pain in your ear (earache).
  • Hearing loss, which may worsen over time.
  • Ringing in your ears (tinnitus).
  • Itchiness in your ears.
  • Discharge or odor coming from your ears.
  • Dizziness.

What causes earwax buildup?

Some people get earwax buildup simply because they naturally produce more earwax.

You can also get earwax impaction if:

  • You have dry or hard earwax.
  • You have a lot of ear hair.
  • You have narrow ear canals.
  • You frequently wear earplugs or hearing aids.
  • You routinely use cotton swabs to clean your ears.


What happens if impacted earwax is not removed?

If left untreated, excessive earwax may cause earwax impaction symptoms to worsen. These symptoms might include hearing loss, ear irritation, tinnitus and other issues. A buildup of earwax might also make it difficult to see into your ear, which may result in potential issues going undiagnosed.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is cerumen impaction diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will perform a physical examination. During this visit, they’ll look into your ears with a special instrument, called an otoscope, to see if earwax buildup is present.


Management and Treatment

How do you get rid of impacted earwax?

Impacted cerumen treatments involve both at-home and in-office methods, including:

  • Solutions that dissolve earwax.
  • Ear irrigation.
  • In-office earwax removal.

Talk to your healthcare provider before trying any treatment.

Clean your ears properly

Clean the outside of your ear with a washcloth. After showering or bathing, dry your ears as much as possible.

You should never, under any circumstances, put anything inside your ear canal — including cotton swabs. Not only can using cotton swabs damage your eardrum, but it can also encourage your ears to make more earwax. (Learn more about why you should avoid cotton swabs in “Additional Common Questions” below.)

Use solutions to dissolve earwax

You can use cerumenolytic solutions (solutions to dissolve wax) in your ear canal. These solutions include:

  • Saline solution.
  • Baby oil.
  • Glycerin.
  • Mineral oil.
  • Hydrogen peroxide or peroxide-based ear drops (such as Debrox®).

With these solutions, you put a few drops into the affected ear and lie on the opposite side. This way, the solution can drip into your affected ear. These oils should be used sparingly. If using an over-the-counter earwax removal, follow the directions provided.

Ear irrigation

Another option is irrigating or syringing your ear. This involves using a syringe to rinse out your ear canal with water or saline solution. Generally, you should soften the wax first by using a cerumenolytic solution. Then, you’ll gently irrigate your ear with a bulb syringe.

In-office earwax removal

Finally, your healthcare provider can remove earwax manually using special instruments. They might use a cerumen spoon, forceps, irrigation or a suction device. Generally, these procedures only take a few minutes to complete.


How can I prevent earwax buildup?

Don’t stick anything into your ears to clean them. If you use cotton swabs, you should only use them on the outer part of your ear. If a healthcare provider has to remove earwax from your ears more than once a year, ask them what they suggest to stop earwax from building up.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have impacted cerumen?

Though impacted cerumen is annoying and inconvenient, it usually isn’t dangerous. Still, you should call a healthcare provider if you notice impacted earwax symptoms like ear pain, dizziness or hearing loss.

Some people produce more earwax than other people and may need routine treatments to remove it. Talk to your provider about ways to soften earwax and keep your ears healthy.

Living With

When should I see my healthcare provider?

Call a healthcare provider if you develop cerumen impaction symptoms such as ear pain, itchiness, tinnitus, dizziness, hearing loss or a feeling of fullness in your ears.

You should seek medical care immediately if you have:

  • Fever.
  • An earache that doesn’t go away.
  • Drainage coming out of your ear (otorrhea).
  • A foul odor coming from your ear.

What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?

Your healthcare provider can tell you how to get rid of earwax buildup. Here are a few questions you may want to ask:

  • Do my ears make excessive amounts of earwax?
  • How can I safely and thoroughly clean my ears?
  • Can I prevent earwax from building up?
  • What home remedies do you recommend?
  • Do I need professional earwax removal?
  • Should I have earwax removed on a regular basis?

Additional Common Questions

Can I use cotton swabs to remove excess earwax?

Many people use cotton swabs to clean their ears. But research shows that cotton swabs can actually cause more earwax production. This is because cotton swabs stimulate the tiny hairs inside your ear canal. When you stimulate these hairs, they send messages to the glands inside your ear canal to make more earwax.

What else should I avoid when treating earwax impaction?

Don’t use suction devices for home use (such as Wax-Vac®). They aren’t effective for most people and most healthcare providers don’t recommend them.

Ear candles, advertised as a natural method to remove earwax, are ineffective. They can also cause injuries such as burns to your external ear and ear canal. They may even perforate (tear) your eardrum.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Remember, earwax on its own isn’t bad. It cleans your ears and keeps them from getting infected. However, if earwax builds up, it can cause issues like irritation, itchiness and hearing loss. It’s only safe to clean the outside of your ears and to use drops or water to soften earwax. You should always contact your healthcare provider to remove earwax using an instrument.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 01/13/2023.

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