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.
Signs and symptoms of earwax buildup
The appearance of earwax varies from light yellow to dark brown. Darker colors don’t necessarily indicate that there’s a blockage.
Signs of earwax buildup include:
- sudden or partial hearing loss, which is usually temporary
- tinnitus, which is a ringing or buzzing in the ear
- 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 doesn’t subside
- drainage from your ear
- persistent hearing loss
- an odor coming from your ear
What are possible complications of ear wax impaction?
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.
How is ear wax impaction treated?
Ear wax can be removed in several ways; some of these methods can be done at home.
- Cleaning the outside of the ear by wiping with a cloth.
- Putting cerumenolytic solutions (solutions to dissolve wax) into the ear canal. These solutions include mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, peroxide-based ear drops (such as Debrox®), hydrogen peroxide, and saline solution.
- Irrigating or syringing the ear. This involves using a syringe to rinse out the ear canal with water or saline, generally after the wax has been softened or dissolved by a cerumenolytic.
- Removing the wax manually using special instruments. This should be done only by a health care provider who might use a cerumen spoon, forceps, or suction device.
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).
- Ear irrigation is not painful, but having water squirting into the ear may feel strange.
- Sometimes a person may report additional symptoms, in which case the doctor may investigate further to check whether there is an infection.
- If irrigation does not remove the wax, the individual may need to continue softening the earwax with drops and then repeat the irrigation. The doctor may put water in the ear for around 15 minutes before irrigating.
- If this does not work, the doctor may suggest seeing an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist.
When is irrigation not suitable?
Ear irrigation is not suitable for everyone in all circumstances. The procedure may be unsuitable if any of the following factors apply:
The person has had ear surgery in the last 12 months.
- A child has a tympanostomy tube, also called a grommet, which is a small tube that doctors insert to allow ventilation of the middle ear.
- Another foreign body is blocking the ear canal.
- The person was born with a cleft palate.
- The individual has a perforated eardrum or has had one in the last 12 months.
- The person has or has recently had otitis media, which is an infection of the middle ear.
- There is a mucous discharge from the ear, which could indicate an undiagnosed perforation.
- Anyone who has had any problems, such as severe vertigo or pain, following previous irrigation should not undergo this procedure again.