Earwax, or cerumen, is a fatty substance produced by glands inside the ear that is often thought to clean, lubricate, and protect the lining of your ear. Earwax doesn’t cause problems, but if it builds up, it can create obstructions in the ear canal; these obstructions are one of the most common problems ear, nose and throat (ENT) physicians see.
When untreated, obstructions can create complications including external otitis (“swimmer’s ear”), which occurs when water gets trapped in the ear canal and causes inflammation or infection, and hearing loss, which occurs when excess earwax prevents sound from passing from the outer ear to the inner ear. Earwax obstruction can be treated with earwax removal, but removal can be harmful if done unsafely. Here are five tips for healthier ears and safer earwax removal.
Using a cotton swab, bobby pin or foreign object to remove earwax may cause more harm than good. These methods can push wax in farther, scratch the ear canal or perforate the eardrum. In extreme cases, using foreign objects to remove wax can cause hearing loss by disrupting the bones in the middle ear (ossicles).
Most cases of earwax obstruction can be treated with over-the-counter ear drops, but some drops may cause skin reactions in the ear canal. Safe solutions include mineral oil or 3 percent hydrogen peroxide. Use a medicine dropper to place three drops into the affected ear, and then lie on your side for 10 minutes with the affected ear facing upwards. This allows the drops to soak into the earwax, softening it enough to aid its natural expulsion. This is not a recommended treatment for those with a perforated eardrum.
Ear candling–which involves inserting a long, hollow candle into your ear canal and lighting the far end–isn’t a safe option for wax removal as it can cause burns, candle wax blockage, and perforation of the eardrum.
Ear irrigation, which involves squirting a pressurized flow of water into the ear to flush out excess wax, is one of the most common ear procedures carried out in primary care. It’s generally regarded as a safe option for treating earwax obstruction, but it can be dangerous if performed incorrectly. This is not an advised method of removal for those with diabetes, a hole in the eardrum, tubes in the ears, or those with weakened immune systems.
If you’re concerned about earwax, ask your ENT physician whether treatment is necessary and which is most appropriate for you. ENT physicians offer an ear cleaning procedure called micro-suction. During this 15 to 20 minute procedure, an ENT physician uses a microscope to magnify the ear canal, and then utilizes suction and specialized instruments to manually remove any earwax buildup. Micro-suction differs from irrigation and other forms of ear cleaning treatment in that it’s not carried out ‘blind’ – but instead under direct vision. This quick appointment should provide immediate relief of your symptoms and is available to patients of all ages.