Ear Wax

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Introduction

What is ear wax?

Ear wax, also called cerumen, can be an annoyance, but it helps to protect your ears from bacteria, dirt, microbes, and other foreign particles. A healthy amount of ear wax is essential to maintain a clean environment in the ear. Ear wax also provides lubrication, keeps the area moist, and protects the ear canal from water.

The body’s natural system of ear wax disposal is a self-sustaining process, in which old wax dries and flakes off near the opening of the ear. Sometimes excess wax is produced and can harden, blocking the ear. A buildup of wax is a common cause of hearing loss. Cleaning inside the ear or attempting to remove ear wax yourself with a cotton swab often causes the wax to lodge deeper in the ear canal and may worsen the symptoms related to excess ear wax.

Ear wax is usually not a cause for concern, but excessive wax blockage can affect hearing or indicate a serious condition. Seek prompt medical care for serious symptoms, including fever, fluid draining from the ear, loss of hearing, or severe ear pain.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of ear wax?

Symptoms of ear wax blockage include a feeling of fullness or a sensation of something in your ear. Ear pain and itching are not associated with cerumen buildup. Your hearing may also be muffled by the obstruction.

Common symptoms of ear wax blockage

  • Difficulty hearing
  • Earache
  • Feeling of fullness or blockage in the ear
  • Odor from the ear canal
  • Pressure in the ears
  • Ringing in the ear (tinnitus)

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

Ear wax is usually not a cause for concern, but excessive wax blockage can affect hearing or indicate a serious condition. Seek prompt medical care if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms including:

  • Fever
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • Loss of hearing
  • Severe ear pain
Causes

What causes ear wax?

Cerumen, or ear wax, is produced by oil glands and hair follicles in the ear canal. The function of ear wax is to trap dirt, bacteria, and other potentially harmful invaders and to protect the ear canal. Some people produce more ear wax than others; it is not known if this is hereditary or linked to any other cause. Although this is not harmful, an excessive buildup can affect your hearing and should be removed.

What are the risk factors for ear wax?

Certain people are more prone to buildup of ear wax than others. Use of a hearing aid may contribute to excessive ear wax or ear wax blockage. Attempting to clean inside your ear canal using a cotton swab may actually worsen wax blockage by pushing it inward.

Risk factors for ear wax buildup include:

  • Hearing aids or other devices implanted in the ear
  • Improper use of cotton swabs to remove ear wax
Treatments

How is ear wax treated?

Blockage that persists may require a visit to a health care professional, such as an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor) or primary care physician. He or she may apply suction or use a microscope and a curette (small instrument that fits in the ear) to remove the impacted cerumen.

What you can do to improve your ear wax

Sometimes ear wax can be removed by allowing shampoo suds to enter your ear while washing your hair. However, be sure to avoid forceful water from the shower directly entering your ear. This could cause serious damage. Some over-the-counter products are available to help loosen ear wax blockages.

You should never use an instrument designed for another purpose, such as a tooth cleaning instrument or other device, to try to remove ear wax. This could seriously damage your eardrum.

What are the potential complications of ear wax?

Most cases of ear wax blockage resolve with self-treatment and are not associated with complications. The most common complication of ear wax buildup is temporary reduction in hearing. If you follow the instructions provided by your health care provider for ear wax buildup, you can help minimize your risk of complications, which may include otitis externa (outer ear infection).

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jan 5
  1. Wax blockage. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001974/.
  2. Earwax and care. American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery. http://www.entnet.org/content/earwax-and-care.
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