Earwax Buildup & Blockage
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 jaw motions like chewing while the skin in your ear grows from the inside out. When it reaches the outside of the ear, it flakes off.
Earwax is produced in the outer part of the ear canal, not deep inside the ear. Earwax is made up of dead skin cells and hair that is combined with the discharge from two different glands.
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 isn’t quite right. It’s important to note that most people might never need to clean their ears. Ears 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 buildup and blockage?
If left untreated, excessive earwax may cause symptoms of earwax blockage to become worse. These symptoms might include hearing loss, ear irritation, etc. A buildup of earwax might also make it difficult to see into the ear, which may result in potential problems going undiagnosed.
Does the color of earwax mean anything?
Healthy earwax comes in a range of colors, but sometimes color does have meaning. First you have to consider if you have wet earwax or dry earwax.
Wet earwax comes in a range of colors including light yellow, honey-color, and orange-brown. Wet earwax is sticky. Dry earwax is likely to be whitish or gray in color and is flaky.
Generally, in either case, darker colored earwax is older earwax. It is more likely to contain dust and has had more exposure to the air.
If your earwax is more of a discharge, like it contains white or greenish pus, or you find it caked on your pillow after sleeping, you should contact your healthcare provider. You should also contact your healthcare provider if you see blood or if your earwax is quite obviously black.
There's another interesting thing related to having wet or dry earwax. People of European and African descent overwhelmingly have wet earwax. People of Asian, East Asian and Native American descent overwhelmingly have dry earwax. This is due to a genetic difference. In addition, people with wet earwax are more likely to need deodorant. People with dry earwax lack a chemical that makes sweat smell.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of earwax buildup and blockage?
Symptoms of this condition include:
- 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 or odor coming from the ear.
Diagnosis and Tests
Who experiences earwax buildup?
Earwax buildup can happen to anyone. It’s estimated to be present in about 10% of children and 5% of adults who are healthy.
However, it is more likely to occur in:
- People who use hearing aids, ear plugs or ear buds.
- People with a lot of ear hair or who have certain skin conditions.
- 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.
Children produce earwax. Unless they produce too much, you should be careful about cleaning their ears. Only use a washcloth to clean the outside. Don’t worry about it unless there are signs that your child is being bothered by earwax buildup. These signs may include pulling or tugging at the ears, putting things into the ears or problems with hearing. If this happens, contact your healthcare provider.
Older adults may have difficulty with earwax buildup if they wear hearing aids. They might also just ignore their ears. Earwax buildup can cause significant hearing loss and should be addressed.
How is earwax buildup and blockage diagnosed?
Your healthcare 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 buildup and blockage treated?
Earwax can be removed in several ways. Some of these methods can be done at home.
You can clean the outside of the ear by wiping with a cloth. Don’t wad up the cloth and push it into the ear canal.
You can use cerumenolytic solutions (solutions to dissolve wax) into the ear canal. These solutions include:
- Mineral oil.
- Baby oil.
- Hydrogen peroxide or peroxide-based ear drops (such as Debrox®).
- Saline solution.
With these solutions, you put a few drops into the affected ear with a dropper and lie on the opposite side so that the solution can drip into your affected ear. You can also soak a cotton ball and put it over the affected ear and let the solution drip into the ear.
Another option is irrigating or syringing the ear. This involves using a syringe to rinse out the ear canal with water or saline solution. Generally, this is done after the wax has been softened or dissolved by a cerumenolytic.
Finally, your healthcare provider can remove the wax manually using special instruments. The provider might use a cerumen spoon, forceps, or suction device.
Note: Your ears _should not _be irrigated if you have, or think you have, a perforation (hole) in your eardrum or if you have tubes in the affected ear(s).
How not to clean your ears
Don’t use suction devices for home use (such as Wax-Vac®). They aren’t effective for most people and aren’t recommended.
Ear candles, which are advertised as a natural method to remove earwax, are ineffective. They can also cause injuries such as burns to the external ear and ear canal and perforation of the eardrum.
How can I prevent earwax buildup and blockage?
Don’t stick anything into your ears to clean them. Use cotton swabs only on the outside of the ear. If you have to have your earwax removed by a healthcare provider more than once a year, you should ask them what they suggest to stop earwax from building up.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Remember, earwax on its own isn’t bad. It's designed to help keep your ears from getting infected. However, if it builds up, it can cause problems by irritating your ears and preventing you from hearing well. It’s only safe to clean the outside of the ears and to use drops or water to soften earwax. You should always contact your healthcare provider to remove earwax using an instrument.