Ear wax, 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 ear wax 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. Ear wax is produced in the outer part of the ear canal, not deep inside the ear.
We say that ear wax 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. Ear wax 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 ear wax farther into the ears and can also cause injury to the ear.
If left untreated, excessive ear wax may cause symptoms of ear wax impaction to become worse. These symptoms might include hearing loss, ear irritation, etc. A build-up of ear wax might also make it difficult to see into the ear, which may result in potential problems going undiagnosed.
Ear wax buildup can happen to anyone. However, it is more likely to occur in:
Your health care provider can look into your ears with a special instrument, called an otoscope, to see if ear wax buildup is present.
Ear wax can be removed in several ways; some of these methods can be done at home.
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 ear wax, 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.
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 ear wax 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.
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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 healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 07/17/2017