Earwax, also known as cerumen, is naturally produced by glands in the ears to lubricate the ear canals, to keep dust and debris from getting too far down into the ear canal and to protect the eardrum from infection.
Cerumen typically clears itself from the ears (flowing from the eardrum out), but in some instances can accumulate and cause a blockage. Wax can be wet, sticky or dry in consistency, and vary from bright yellow to dark brown in colour.
Symptoms of a cerumen blockage include:
- Decreased hearing
- Feeling of ear fullness or pressure
- Tinnitus (ringing in the brain)
If a blockage occurs, it may need to be removed. This can be done at home or preferably at your hearing care professional’s office, depending on the size and severity of the blockage.
At-Home Earwax Removal
In some instances, a physician may send patients home with an at-home earwax removal kit. Earwax removal kits can also be purchased over the counter in most drug stores.
These kits generally consist of an oil-based liquid that softens earwax and a small rubber bulb syringe. You will be given directions on how much and how often to apply the liquid to your ear canals, allowing it to sit for a short amount of time in your ears to soften up the earwax. Bubbling and fizzing sensations in your ears are normal with use. You will then use the bulb syringe to gently flush your ears with warm (not hot) water to remove the earwax. It may take several days to completely clear earwax blockages from your ear using this method. There are contraindications to using these kits in some people with ear conditions. Before attempting at-home earwax removal, it is advisable to speak with your hearing care provider to be sure it is safe for you.
Earwax Removal Methods To Avoid
People commonly use cotton swabs (Q-tipsTM) to try and remove earwax or dislodge a wax blockage. However, this can sometimes cause more problems as cotton swabs may push the wax blockage further down into the ear canal and ear drum, risking even more damage to the ear.
Cotton swabs themselves can also be accidentally inserted too far into the ear canal and can actually puncture the eardrum when inserted too far (the ear canal is about 1 inch long).
Physicians generally agree that cotton swabs are a poor idea for removing earwax and should only be used on the outer portions of your ear. You should never insert cotton swabs or any small object into your ear canal.
Earwax Removal at the Hearing Professional’s Office
If the earwax blockage is more significant, it may need to be removed at your hearing care professional’s office. Hearing specialists typically use one of three methods to remove earwax: irrigation, curettage or gentle suction.
Irrigation is the most common method your hearing specialist will use to remove blockages. Unlike at-home earwax removal kits, your hearing professional may use stronger earwax removal medications in conjunction with irrigation. Carbamide peroxide is typically the main ingredient in these medications. Irrigation is a good method when the wax is dry.
The second method is curettage, which involves the use of a curette. A curette is a long, curved tool that may be used by the hearing professional to remove cerumen from the ear canal. Curetting is the best method when wax is more sticky in consistency.
The third method is aspiration, or gentle suction. This method involves the hearing professional inserting a thin suction tube into the opening of the ear canal and removing the wax with a gentle vacuum. This method is best when the wax is wet.
If you experience pain or discomfort as a result of earwax or suspect you have a blockage, it’s important that you see your hearing health professional as soon as possible to address the issue. Removing earwax doesn’t have to be painful and should bring relief.