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Earwax blockage, also called cerumen impaction, can occur when your body produces too much earwax or when existing wax is pushed too far into your ear canal. In some cases, you may not be able to hear out of the affected ear. But this typically lasts only until you can have the excess wax removed. In most cases, home treatment works well, but a doctor can also help eliminate and unplug earwax blockage.
Causes of earwax blockage
The presence of some earwax is normal. Earwax protects your inner ear from debris, such as bacteria and dust. Normally, the wax works its way out of your ear gradually so there’s no blockage. However, you may develop a blockage if you push the wax deep into your ear or naturally produce an excess amount of earwax.
Using cotton swabs
If you try to get the wax out with a cotton swab or other object, you may end up pushing it further into your ear, creating an obstruction.
Natural presence of excessive wax
Another possible cause of earwax blockage is that your body just makes more wax than it should. In this case, there may be too much wax for your ear to easily eliminate. If so, the wax may harden in your ear, making it less likely to work its way out on its own.
Learn more: Earwax buildup and blockage »
Symptoms of earwax blockage
One of the main symptoms of earwax blockage is decreased hearing in the affected ear. Don’t worry — your hearing will return once you have the earwax blockage removed.
Other common symptoms include:
- a feeling of fullness in your ear
- an earache
- ringing, buzzing, or other odd noises in your ear
Most people only notice these symptoms in one ear, since it’s unlikely that both ears will be blocked at the same time. If you’re experiencing these symptoms in both ears, you should see a doctor to rule out any other medical conditions.
Your doctor will likely ask about your symptoms before diagnosing you with a wax blockage. Your doctor will also use a lighted instrument called an otoscope to look into your ear and see if wax may be causing your symptoms.
Treating earwax blockage
Your doctor may treat your earwax blockage in the office, or instruct you on how to do this at home. If your doctor has reason to believe that your eardrum isn’t intact, they will likely have to remove the earwax to make sure you don’t damage this important and sensitive structure.
You can use several substances to soften and remove earwax at home, including:
Use an eyedropper to insert a few drops into your ear canal twice a day for four to five days to soften the wax. Once the wax is soft, it should come out on its own within a few days.
Another home care option is irrigation. Fill a rubber ball syringe with warm water, tilt your head, and gently squeeze the syringe. Pull your earlobe up a bit so that you can direct the water into your ear canal. You’ll likely have to repeat this procedure a few times. Dry your ear thoroughly after attempting to remove the earwax blockage.
Learn more: Ear irrigation »
At the doctor’s office
If these tactics don’t work, you may need your doctor to suction your ear or remove the blockage with a curette or other instrument.
What can be expected in the long term
Once you experience an earwax blockage, there’s no guarantee that it won’t return. If your body produces an excessive amount of wax, you may have to deal with this condition several times in your life. Earwax blockage is only a temporary issue, and your symptoms should disappear after you treat the condition.
Some people experience complications from earwax blockage, such as a fever, ear drainage, and severe ear pain. If you notice these relatively rare symptoms, you should contact your doctor to have the earwax removed as soon as possible.
Preventing earwax blockage
If you know you’re prone to earwax blockage, you should consider preventing the buildup by irrigating your ear regularly. This may reduce the chances of earwax becoming hard and clogging your ear.
Another way to prevent earwax blockage is to avoid sticking anything in your ear, including the cotton swabs that many people regularly use to clean out wax. This tactic can actually push wax further into your ear, causing an obstruction and possible irritation on the eardrum. Instead, you should use a wet cloth or tissue to gently clean your ear.
The genesis and treatment of a common ear condition
Some earwax is good for your ears, so often the best policy is to leave it alone. And a few drops of water may be all you need to get rid of a blockage.
Earwax, a bodily emanation that many of us would rather do without, is actually pretty useful stuff — in small amounts. It's a natural cleanser as it moves from inside the ear canal outward, gathering dead skin cells, hair, and dirt along the way. Tests have shown that it has antibacterial and antifungal properties. If your ears don't have enough earwax, they're likely to feel itchy and uncomfortable.
The side effects of excessive earwax
But for many people, earwax is manifestly too much of a good thing. An ear canal plugged up with earwax can cause earaches, infections, and other problems. If it gets lodged in a certain way, earwax can cause a cough by stimulating the branch of the vagus nerve that supplies the outer ear. And, not surprisingly, an excess of earwax can result in some loss of hearing.
Guidelines from the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery stress a let-it-be attitude toward earwax and warn against removal unless the earwax is causing a problem. Of course, sometimes it's difficult to tell if the wax is the source of a problem without removing it and seeing whether the problem goes away.
The development of earwax
The medical term for earwax is cerumen (pronounced seh-ROO-men), which comes from cera, Latin for wax. It starts as a mixture of fatty secretions from the sebaceous glands and sweat glands in the walls of the outer ear canal (see illustration). Jaw movement from chewing or talking helps propel those secretions through the canal to the ear opening, where they dry up and harmlessly flake off.
Where wax comes from
Dead skin and other debris combine with secretions from sebaceous and modified sweat glands (see inset) to create earwax.
Earwax that picks up a lot of debris or sits in the ear canal for a long time can get hard and dry, so it's more likely to cause a blockage. Conditions that produce a lot of dry, flaking skin, like eczema, can also result in hard earwax. And with age, the glandular secretions change consistency, so they don't travel as easily through the ear canal.
Some people are simply born producing dry earwax that may be more likely to clump. For example, dry earwax is more common in East Asians.
Earwax removal tips
You can get medical help to remove a blockage; earwax removal is the most common otolaryngologic procedure performed in American primary care settings.
Or you can take a do-it-yourself approach. The thing that many people do — but shouldn't — is try to remove the wax with a cotton swab, which tends to push the earwax back into the ear. Instead, soak a cotton ball and drip a few drops of plain water, a simple saline solution, or hydrogen peroxide into the ear with your head tilted so the opening of the ear is pointing up. Keep it in that position for a minute to allow gravity to pull the fluid down through the wax. Then tilt the head the other way and let the fluid and wax drain out. You can also use a bulb syringe to swish out the ear.
Earwax forms in the outer third or some of the ear canal, not near the eardrum. So, when there's a buildup right up against the eardrum, it's often the result of failed removal attempts.
You can buy over-the-counter eardrops that break up earwax. The water-based ones contain ingredients such as acetic acid, hydrogen peroxide, or sodium bicarbonate. Oil-based products lubricate and soften the earwax. Studies haven't shown one type to be better than the other. Sometimes the eardrops will work on their own. Other times, a few squirts of water with a bulb syringe are needed. No one with a damaged eardrum should use a bulb syringe. If water gets into the middle ear, a serious infection is possible.
A clinician tackles an earwax blockage in pretty much the same way as a do-it-yourselfer, but with more expertise — and with a better view. Clinicians also have far better tools for mechanically removing earwax: slender, spoon-like curettes that can fit into the narrow space of the ear canal.
Listen up, hearing-aid wearers
Hearing aids, which block the normal migration of earwax out of the ear, may also stimulate glands in the ear canal to produce more secretions. By some counts, between 60% and 70% of the hearing aids sent in for repair are damaged by earwax. It gets into vents and receivers, and the acidity degrades components. Ask your primary care clinician to look for earwax build-up if you wear a hearing aid.
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Sure, its a little bit extremely disgusting, but the gross out factor pales in comparison to the massive release you feel when a waxy boulder comes tumbling out of a cave on the side of Head Mountain. Remember: theres nothing to be embarrassed about because this is just The Magic of the Human Body. Yes, like a loyal employee punching out after a hard day on the line, your earwax heads home with its lunchbox in hand after drowning dust and dirt on a double shift in your ear canal. The gigs not easy and it doesnt pay well, so when Waxy Browns finished his business, you know its because hes done as much as he can.
Photos from: here and here
Is Earwax Removal Safe?
I've heard that using a cotton swab to remove my child's earwax isn't a good idea. Is this true? And, if so, how can I clean my child's ears safely?
That's true — it's not a good idea to stick anything into a child's ears. Doing so raises the risk of infection or permanently damaging eardrums and hearing. Regular bathing should be enough to keep earwax at normal levels.
The waxy substance (called cerumen) that the ears make provides a coating for the skin lining the ear canal. This helps keep the canal skin from getting too wet or dry, which helps prevent irritation or infection. Earwax also traps dirt, dust, and other particles, keeping them from injuring or irritating the eardrum.
While some people have more earwax than others — just as some people tend to sweat more than others — in general, the ear makes just as much wax as it needs.
In some cases, a hardened lump of wax can form in the canal, which can make it difficult to hear in that ear or even trap bacteria and cause an infection. If this happens, don't stick anything inside the ear to try to remove the wax yourself. Doing so could cause permanent hearing damage.
If your child needs to have earwax removed, a medical professional should remove it in an office or clinical setting. For hearing problems or pain or irritation in or near the ears, talk with your doctor, who can examine your child to find the cause.
And while earwax remedies are sold in stores, it's important not to use anything inside a child's ears unless told to do so by a doctor.
Ball of earwax hard
How to Safely Remove Hard, Dry Earwax
Earwax helps keep your ears healthy and clean. It’s also waterproof and helps protect the lining of your ear canal. Earwax may be soft and wet or hard and dry. It can be yellow to brown in color.
Hard, dry earwax can sometimes cause ear and hearing problems. It’s more likely to build up in the ear canal. You may need to remove it. Too much hard, dry earwax may cause:
Some people naturally have hard, dry earwax. Earwax that stays in the ear canal for too long can become hard and dry.
If you naturally have too much earwax, it can clump together in your ear canal.
Other causes of hard, dry earwax include:
- using cotton swabs
- wearing ear buds or ear plugs a lot
- wearing a hearing aid
- putting pencils or other objects in the ear canals
- narrow ear canals
- bony growths in the outer ear canal
- hairy ear canals
How to remove earwax
Home remedies may help reduce hard, dry earwax. In some cases, a few drops of water can soften hard earwax.
Soak a cotton ball and place it gently on the outer ear opening to let some water drip in. You can also use a rubber bulb syringe to squirt a small amount of water into the ear canal.
Other natural eardrops to help earwax come out more easily include:
- saline solution
- olive oil
- almond oil
- coconut oil
Other types of eardrops that help soften and break up hard, dry earwax are:
You can get rubber bulb syringes and eardrops for earwax removal at pharmacies and drugstores. You don’t need a prescription.
You may need to use eardrops for several days to slowly soften hardened earwax.
Use them only as directed. Using too much at a time may irritate the lining of your ear. The earwax should soften or break up into smaller pieces and come out on its own.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor immediately if you have any ear pain or an ear infection. Tell your doctor if you have trouble hearing or hear ringing in your ears, even if it only happens sometimes.
If you’ve had ear problems in the past, it’s best to have your doctor remove impacted earwax. Additionally, get medical treatment if eardrops and at-home treatments don’t work.
Tell your doctor if you think you may have hardened earwax or if earwax buildup happens often. Earwax removal is a common procedure in family doctor’s offices.
Your doctor will look into your ears with a scope to find out how much earwax there is and how deep it is. If you have a lot of impacted hard, dry earwax it may take more than one visit to remove it.
Your doctor may recommend using more eardrops first to help soften and loosen the earwax. Removal methods at your doctor’s office include:
- Ear irrigation. An electric pump pushes water into the ear and washes earwax out.
- Microsuction. A small medical device is used to suck earwax out of the ear.
- Aural scraping. Your doctor uses a thin instrument with a loop at one end to clean out earwax.
What not to do
Trying to remove earwax yourself can sometimes make it worse. You may push the earwax deeper into your ear. It can also damage your ear canal or even the eardrum. Avoid putting these things in your ear canal:
- cotton swabs
- cotton balls
- pencils, tweezers, and other objects
- scraping tools or anything pointed
Additionally, avoid overcleaning your ear canals or using eardrops longer than recommended. Without enough earwax, you can get itchy ears. You may also be at higher risk of an ear infection.
Avoid ear candling, which is also called ear coning. It uses a hollow candle that’s lit on one end to create “pressure” to help pull out wax.
A on ear infections in children found that ear candling doesn’t work to help get rid of earwax buildup. It’s also dangerous. Hot wax can drip into the ear or burn the skin.
Wet vs. dry earwax
Age plays a role in earwax composition. Older adults typically have drier earwax.
Hormone fluctuations can cause changes in how much and what kind of earwax you have. Too much stress can trigger your body to make more earwax. This can lead to a hard buildup of earwax.
According to a , dry, flaky earwax is more common in people from East Asia, while sticky or wet earwax occurs in Caucasian people and people of African descent.
Health conditions that cause dry or flaking skin like eczema and psoriasis can also lead to hard, dry earwax.
The bottom line
Hormonal changes, age, and other factors may affect the kind of earwax you have.
It can be difficult to remove hard, dry earwax buildup in your ear. Home remedies include ear washing kits and eardrops to help loosen impacted earwax.
See your doctor if you have any pain or irritation in your ear. Avoid trying to remove earwax yourself if at-home remedies don’t work, or if you have frequent hard or dry earwax. Your doctor can check your ears and safely remove it.
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