What is earwax?
Earwax, or cerumen (pronounced seh-ROO-men) as it’s called clinically, is an orange, reddish-brown, or light-yellow substance in the ear canals. Earwax is made up of skin cells shed from the ear canal walls, mixed with secretions from glands in the skin in the outer two-thirds of the ear canals.
Cerumen protects the ear from:
- Foreign particles
Earwax also keeps the skin in the ear from being irritated by water.
Two types of glands make the main parts of earwax: sebaceous glands and ceruminous glands. How much each gland contributes affects whether the earwax has a wet or soft consistency.
Earwax buildup & blockage
While our ears are designed to be self-cleaning, the unique cul-de-sac shape at the end of the ear canals can sometimes trap earwax. Hearing aids can also lead to a buildup of wax just past the point where they sit in the ear canal.
Untreated buildup can cause:
- Hearing loss
- Ear pain
- Ringing in the ears
Chewing and talking move the ear canal, and these actions can speed up expelling the earwax. However, in some cases, earwax builds up to a point where it needs managing.
Who gets earwax buildup?
About 5% of adults will experience a buildup of too much earwax. This is more likely to occur in people who:
- Use hearing aids
- Wear earbuds
- Wear earplugs
- Have an ear canal shape that impedes natural wax removal
- Clean their ears with cotton swabs or other foreign objects
Wax buildup can cause significant hearing loss that can be remedied by removing the earwax.
Removing earwax safely
The best thing you can do to manage your earwax is to ask your family physician about the status of your ear canals.
By looking at your ears using an otoscope, a physician can see if there’s a lot of earwax in the canal. She can advise whether the earwax has reached a point where it should be removed. If so, the earwax may be extracted by:
Using vacuum suction
Flushing with water
Manual removal with a curette
Creating a management plan
Once the wax has been removed, a management plan can be put in place. The plan may include a recommendation for regular use of an at-home earwax removal kit or an earwax softening substance.
At-home earwax management:
Talk to your doctor before you try removing earwax to make sure your ear canal and eardrum will tolerate an at-home remedy.
Here are several ways you can remove earwax at home safely:
Soften the wax
Placing one to three drops of olive oil in the ear canals at night to keep the wax soft so it will come out on its own.
Flush with warm water
Rinsing your ears in the shower or submerging your ears in the bathtub can soften the wax and help it move out of the ear canal.
Rinse the ear canals
The Mayo Clinic recommends gently rinsing the ear canals with a solution of ½ part white vinegar and ½ part rubbing alcohol periodically, in addition to the softening and flushing regimen.
An at-home kit
Your doctor may recommend using an earwax softening product such as Cerumol.
Objects to avoid when cleaning your ears
If left alone, ear wax is expelled from the ear canal in a six to twelve-week cycle. However, placing items in the ear canals can stop the process by pushing the wax back in. (And can risk damaging the eardrum!) We know that many people DO use items like the ones below (we see you!) to clear their ears so we need to reinforce this point.
The ear canal can become blocked if you try to clear your ears with:
- Cotton swabs
- Bobby pins
- A finger
- Ear candles
- A syringe
Attempts to clean the ear improperly can cause:
- Hearing loss
- A full feeling in the ears