Earwax: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

If earwax is affecting your hearing, you may need to see an ENT.

Being ear, nose, and throat specialists, we need to broach the topic of earwax with our Anchorage patients from time to time. It always starts with a simple truth: We all have earwax, some more than others. But did you know that earwax is actually good for your ears, and it keeps your ears clean?  Earwax, or cerumen, traps dust, dirt, and sometimes bugs. It’s held together by oil and wax from glands living in your ear canal. The wax also protects the inner ear and can stop bad bacteria from growing in the ear. (And you thought it was just gross!)

You can have too much earwax, though. Some medications, stress, and vigorous exercise will cause your body to make too much earwax. Also, your body will make more wax as you get older. For many people, earwax comes out by itself. Sometimes, the twists and turns of the ear canals can trap wax, particularly in patients with smaller canals. In these cases, it cannot easily come out. It can also clog up a perfectly fine hearing aid. Wax can also become trapped in your ear if, for example, you wear earbuds that block the way out. Whatever the cause, trapped earwax makes it hard to hear.

You can hurt your hearing and ears by trying to get rid of earwax at home. Most people do not know how to take the earwax out. Some may try to use toothpicks, hairpins, or Q-tips® to clean their ears. This may not be safe: You can puncture the eardrum or push the wax even farther into the ear. Earwax then becomes impacted close to the eardrum. When this happens, the wax will get dry like a hard ball. This condition, called earwax impaction, produces several symptoms:

  • Decreased hearing
  • Dizziness
  • Ear pain
  • Plugged or fullness sensation
  • Ringing in the ear
  • Itching or drainage from the ear canal

See your doctor if you think you may have any symptoms of an earwax impaction. Other conditions may cause these symptoms, and it is important to be sure earwax is the culprit before trying any home remedies.

Your doctor may recommend that you try an earwax removal method at home, unless you have a perforation (a hole) or a tube in your eardrum. Here are some notes on home remedies:

  • Over-the-counter wax softening drops such as Debrox® or Murine® may be put into the affected ear and then allowed to drain out after about 5 minutes while holding the head to the side, allowing the drops to settle. Sitting up will let the drops drain out.
  • A bulb-type syringe may be used to gently flush the ear with warm water. The water should be at body temperature to help prevent dizziness.
  • Ear candling is not recommended. The procedure uses a hollow cone made of paraffin and beeswax, with cloth on the tapered end. The tapered end is placed inside the ear, and an assistant lights the other end (while making sure your hair does not catch on fire). In theory, as the flame burns, a vacuum is created, which draws the wax out of the ear. Limited clinical trials, however, showed that no vacuum was created, and no wax was removed. Furthermore, this practice may result in serious injury.

Three common techniques for earwax removal at the doctor’s office work best, with no single method outshining the others: flushing the ear out with a water solution, manually removing the earwax under a microscope using medical instruments, and sending the patient home with ear drops.

Don’t be embarrassed by a little earwax. It is totally fine and normal. If you’re concerned with possible earwax buildup — or any other condition that may be affecting your hearing or ear health — please don’t hesitate to request a consultation with us online or call us at (907) 279-8800.

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Meet Our Physicians

Each of our physicians is board-certified in Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery, and Dr. Ellerbe is board-certified in Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.