Cerumen, also known as earwax, is naturally produced by the glands in the ears to lubricate the ear canals and keep dust and debris from getting too far down in the ear canal. It actually has some benefits in that ear wax is anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. That is, wax is meant to keep the ear healthy.
Cerumen typically clears itself from the ears, but it becomes a problem when it accumulates and causes a blockage. This happens more commonly in people who have dry skin, narrow ear canals, tortuous (very curvy) ear canal or in people who use Q-tips or earplugs on a daily basis.
Symptoms of a cerumen blockage include:
- Tinnitus (noise in the ear)
- Hearing loss
- Ear pressure
If a blockage occurs, it may need to be removed. This can be done at home or at your doctor’s office, depending on the size and severity of the blockage.
How Not to Remove Earwax Buildup
People commonly use cotton swabs to try and remove earwax or dislodge a blockage. However, this can sometimes cause more problems as cotton swabs may push the blockage further down into the ear canal, risking even more damage to the ear.
Cotton swabs themselves can also be accidentally inserted too far into the ear canal and can potentially damage your ear, including the possibility of rupturing your eardrum.
Physicians generally agree that cotton swabs are a bad 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.
At-Home Earwax Removal
In some instances, your physican may send patients home with an at-home ear wax removal kit. Earwax removal kits can also be purchased over the counter in most drug stores.
These kits generally consist of a 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 awhile in your ears to soften up the ear wax. 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 water to remove the ear wax. It may take several days to completely clear earwax blockages from your ear. There are contraindications to using these kits in some people and with some ear conditions. Before attempting at-home earwax removal, it is advised to speak with your doctor to be sure it is safe for you.
Removal at Your Doctor’s Office
If the earwax blockage is more significant, it may need to be removed in your doctor’s office. Doctors typically use one of two methods to remove earwax: irrigation or curettage.
Irrigation is the most common method your doctor will use to remove blockages. Unlike at-home ear wax removal kits, your doctor may use stronger ear wax removal medications in conjunction with irrigation. Carbamide peroxide is typically the main ingredient in these medications.
The less common method is curettage, which involves the use of a curette. A curette is a long, curved tool that is used along with suction to gently scrape cerumen from the ear canal, removing the blockage.
If you experience pain or discomfort as a result of earwax, or suspect you have a blockage, it’s important that you see your doctor as soon as possible to address the issue. Removing earwax doesn’t have to be painful and should bring you relief.