What Is Earwax Buildup?
Your ear canal produces a waxy oil called cerumen, which is more commonly known
as earwax. This wax protects the ear from dust, foreign particles, and
microorganisms. It also protects ear canal skin from irritation due to water.
In normal circumstances, excess wax finds its way out of the canal and into the
ear opening naturally and then is washed away.
When your glands make more earwax than is necessary, it may
get hard and block the ear. When you clean your ears, you can accidentally push
the wax deeper, causing a blockage. Wax buildup is a common reason for
temporary hearing loss.
You should take great caution when trying to treat earwax
buildup at home. If the problem persists, visit your doctor. Treatment is
generally quick and painless, and hearing can be fully restored.
Causes of Earwax Buildup
Some people are prone to produce too much earwax. Still,
excess wax doesn’t automatically lead to blockage. In fact, the most common
cause of earwax blockage is at-home removal. Using cotton swabs, bobby pins, or
other objects in your ear canal can also push wax deeper, creating a blockage.
You’re also more likely to have wax buildup if you
frequently use earphones, which can inadvertently prevent earwax from coming
out of the ear canals and cause blockages.
Signs and Symptoms of Earwax Buildup
The appearance of earwax varies from light yellow to dark
brown. Darker colors do not necessarily indicate that there is a blockage.
Signs of earwax buildup include:
- sudden or partial hearing loss, which is usually
- tinnitus, which is a ringing or buzzing in the
- a feeling of fullness in the ear
Unremoved earwax buildup can lead to infection. Contact your
doctor if you experience the symptoms of infection, such as:
- severe pain in your ear
- pain in your ear that does not subside
- drainage from your ear
- persistent hearing loss
- an odor coming from your ear
It’s important to note that hearing loss, dizziness, and
earaches also have many other causes. You should see your doctor if any of
these symptoms are frequent. A full medical evaluation can help determine
whether the problem is due to excess earwax or another health issue entirely.
Earwax in Children
Children, like adults, naturally produce earwax. While it
may be tempting to remove the wax, doing so can damage your child’s ears.
If you suspect your child has earwax buildup or a blockage,
it’s best to see a pediatrician. Your child’s doctor may also notice excess wax
during regular ear exams and remove it as needed. Also, if you notice your
child sticking their finger or other objects in their ear out of irritation,
you might want to ask their doctor to check their ears for wax buildup.
Earwax in Older Adults
Earwax can also be problematic in older adults. Some adults
may let wax buildup go until it gets to the point where hearing is obstructed.
In fact, most cases of conductive hearing loss in older adults is caused by
earwax buildup. This makes sounds seem muffled. A hearing aid can also
contribute to a wax blockage.
How to Get Rid of Excess Earwax
You should never attempt to dig out earwax buildup yourself.
This can cause major damage to your ear and lead to infection or hearing loss.
However, you will often be able to get rid of the excess
earwax yourself. Only use cotton swabs on the outer portion of your ears if
To soften earwax, you can purchase over-the-counter drops
made specifically for that purpose. You can use the following substances:
- mineral oil
- hydrogen peroxide
- carbamide peroxide
- baby oil
Another way to remove earwax buildup is by irrigating the
ear. You should never attempt to irrigate your ear if you have an ear injury or
have had a medical procedure done on your ear. Irrigation of a ruptured eardrum
could cause hearing loss or infection.
Never use products that were made for irrigating your mouth
or teeth. They produce more force than your eardrum can safely tolerate.
To properly irrigate your ear, follow the directions
provided with an over-the-counter kit, or follow these steps:
- Stand or sit with your head in an upright
- Hold the outside of your ear and pull it gently
- With a syringe, send a stream of
body-temperature water into your ear. Water that is too cold or too warm can
- Allow water to drain by tipping your head.
It might be necessary to do this several times. If you often
deal with wax buildup, routine ear irrigations may help prevent the condition.
Getting Help from the Doctor
Most people don’t need frequent medical help for earwax
removal. In fact, the Cleveland
Clinic says that a once-a-year cleaning at your annual doctor’s appointment
is usually enough to keep blockage at bay.
If you’re unable to clear the wax or if your ear becomes
more irritated, you should seek medical treatment. Other conditions may cause
symptoms of earwax buildup. It’s important that your doctor can rule those out.
An otoscope (a lighted
instrument with a magnifier) helps healthcare professionals to see clearly into
your inner ear.
Your doctor may use irrigation, suction, or a curette (a small, curved
instrument) to remove the wax buildup.
Follow your doctor’s instructions for aftercare carefully.
Most people do well after earwax removal. Hearing often
returns to normal immediately. However, some people are prone to produce too
much wax and will face the problem again.
Warning About Ear Candles
Ear candles are marketed as a treatment for earwax buildup
and other conditions, but the Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) warns consumers that these products may not be
This treatment is also known as ear coning or thermal
auricular therapy. It involves inserting a lit tube of fabric coated in
beeswax or paraffin into the ear. The theory is that the suction produced will
pull wax out of the ear canal. According to the FDA, the use of these candles
can result in:
- burns to the ear and face
- punctured eardrums
- injuries from dripping wax
- fire hazards
This can be especially dangerous for young children who have
trouble being still. The FDA has received reports of injuries and burns, some
of which required outpatient surgery. The agency believes such incidents are
Check with your healthcare professional before trying to use
While sometimes bothersome, earwax is a natural part of your
ear health. You should avoid removing earwax with objects because this can
worsen the problem. In severe cases, cotton swabs can even damage the eardrum
or ear canal. Medical help is usually only necessary when you have excess
earwax that doesn’t come out on its own. If you suspect you have earwax buildup
or blockage, see your doctor for assistance.