Earwax, also known as cerumen, is a natural substance produced by our ear canals to keep them moisturized and prevent dust and other foreign objects from remaining in the ears and causing problems.
In a properly functioning ear, the skin grows from the eardrum outward, taking the cerumen with it. In some cases the wax builds up too quickly, or dries to the canal, causing a blockage. This is especially common in seniors whose skin cells don't regenerate as quickly, or anyone who commonly blocks their ears with earplugs, hearing aids or headphones.
Symptoms of a cerumen blockage include:
Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
Fullness or pressure
If the blockage does not clear on it's own, it may need to be removed. Depending on the size of the blockage, and how long it has been there, this can either be removed at home, by a doctor or at a hearing clinic.
In home methods
At-home earwax removal kits can be purchased in most pharmacies, or are sometimes provided by your physician. These kits usually include a liquid formulated to soften the blockage as well as a small rubber bulb syringe to rinse out the ear. There will be directions on how much to use and how often. Fizzing, bubbling or crackling sounds are all common as you soften the cerumen. The bulb syringe will then be used to gently flush out the ears with warm water. This will most likely need to done several times over the course of a few days. Some conditions contraindicate the use of these methods. You should always consult with a physician, audiologist or hearing instrument specialist before attempting to use these kits.
For minor blockages and irritations, a 50/50 mix of vinegar and water can be used to rinse the ear, or over the counter (3% solution) hydrogen peroxide can be used to dissolve cerumen.
Methods to avoid
Cotton swabs are marketed for cleaning the ears, but generally just push the wax further into the ear canal, often making matters worse. If used with too much force, or too deeply, damage can be done to the ear canal or eardrum itself.
Physicians and hearing professionals are generally in agreement that cotton swabs should only be used on the outer portion of the ear and never inserted into the canal further than you can put your finger.
Ear candling is also marketed as a method of removing ear wax. When done carefully there is no real harm, but if done improperly it can result in burns to the canal or eardrum.
Removal by a professional
For more significant blockages a nurse or physician may remove wax, or refer you to a hearing clinic. There are three methods used to professionally remove cerumen: suction, irrigation or curetting.
Before performing any method of cerumen management, a professional will often recommend either a special solution (arbamide peroxide is typically the main ingredient), or putting oil into the ear to soften the wax.
Small vacuum devices can be used to gently remove dry, loose wax.
Irrigation involves rinsing the ear with warm water under pressure to carefully break up and flush out the blockage. This method is often used for deeper or larger wax plugs.
The least invasive and often first used method is curetting. A curette is a small plastic tool, often with a spoon or loop on the end designed to scoop out the excess cerumen.
If you experience any pain or discomfort in the ear and you suspect it is caused by a blockage, consult a professional as soon as possible. Cerumen management is generally painless and should bring a measure of relief as soon as the blockage is removed.