Earwax Buildup & Blockage

Overview

What is earwax?

Earwax, also called cerumen, is made by the body to protect the ears. The ear wax 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 and as the skin of the ear canal grows from the inside out. At that time, it reaches the outside of the ear and flakes off. Earwax is produced in the outer part of the ear canal, not deep inside the ear.

What does it mean when earwax becomes impacted?

We say that earwax 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, for most people, ears might never need cleaning—they are designed to clean themselves. Earwax buildup and blockage 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 possible complications of earwax impaction?

If left untreated, excessive earwax may cause symptoms of earwax 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.

Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of earwax 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
  • Dizziness

Diagnosis and Tests

Who experiences earwax buildup?

Earwax buildup can happen to anyone. However, it is more likely to occur in:

  • People who use hearing aids or ear plugs
  • 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 interfere with natural wax removal

How is earwax 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.

Management and Treatment

How is earwax impaction treated?

Earwax can be removed in several 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, 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, forceps, or suction device.

Note: Irrigation should not be done by or to any persons who have, or suspect they have, a perforation (hole) in their eardrum or tubes in the affected ear(s).

Commercially available suction devices for home use (such as Wax-Vac) are not effective for most people and are therefore not recommended. Ear candles, which are advertised as a natural method to remove earwax, are not only ineffective but can cause injury to the ear. Injuries include burns to the external ear and ear canal and perforation of the eardrum.

Prevention

How can earwax 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 which method of prevention (if any) may work best for you.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/17/2017.

References

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Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy