Earwax blockage occurs when earwax (cerumen) builds up in your ear or becomes too hard to wash away naturally.
Earwax is a helpful and natural part of your body's defenses. It cleans, coats and protects your ear canal by trapping dirt and slowing the growth of bacteria.
If earwax blockage becomes a problem, your health care provider can take simple steps to remove the wax safely.
Signs and symptoms of earwax blockage may include:
- Feeling of fullness in the ear
- Ringing or noises in the ear (tinnitus)
- Hearing loss
- Itchiness in the ear
- Odor or discharge in the ear
- Pain or infection in the ear
When to see a doctor
Earwax blockage that has no symptoms can sometimes clear on its own. However, if you have signs and symptoms of earwax blockage, talk to your health care provider.
Signs and symptoms may signal another condition. There's no way to know if you have too much earwax without having someone, usually your health care provider, look in your ears. Having signs and symptoms, such as earache or hearing loss, doesn't always mean you have wax buildup. You may have another health condition that needs attention.
Wax removal is most safely done by a health care provider. Your ear canal and eardrum are delicate and can be damaged easily. Don't try to remove earwax yourself by putting anything in your ear canal, such as a cotton swab, especially if you have had ear surgery, have a hole (perforation) in your eardrum, or are having ear pain or drainage.
Children usually have their ears checked as part of any medical exam. If needed, a health care provider can remove excess earwax from your child's ear during an office visit.
The wax in your ears is made by glands in the skin of your outer ear canal. The wax and tiny hairs in these passages trap dust and other materials that could damage deeper parts of your ear, such as your eardrum.
In most people, a small amount of earwax regularly makes its way to the ear opening. At the opening, it's washed away or falls out as new wax replaces it. If your ears make too much wax or if earwax isn't cleared well enough, it may build up and block your ear canal.
Earwax blockages often happen when people try to get earwax out on their own by using cotton swabs or other items in their ears. This usually just pushes wax deeper into the ear, rather than removing it.
Your health care provider can see if you have earwax blockage by looking in your ear. Your provider uses a special tool that lights and magnifies your inner ear (otoscope) to look in your ear.
Your health care provider can remove excess wax by using a small, curved tool called a curet or by using suction techniques. Your provider can also flush out the wax using a syringe filled with warm water and saline or diluted hydrogen peroxide. Medicated ear drops may also be recommended to help soften the wax, such as carbamide peroxide (Debrox Earwax Removal Kit, Murine Ear Wax Removal System). Because these drops can irritate the delicate skin of the eardrum and ear canal, use them only as directed.
If earwax buildup continues, you may need to visit your health care provider once or twice a year for regular cleaning. Your health care provider may also recommend that you use earwax-softening agents such as saline, mineral oil or olive oil. This helps loosen the wax so that it can leave the ear more easily.
You can get many ear cleaning home remedies over the counter. But most of these treatments — such as irrigation or ear vacuum kits — aren't well studied. This means they may not work and may be dangerous.
The safest way to clean your ears if you have excess wax is to see your health care provider. If you're prone to earwax blockage, your health care provider can show you safe ways to reduce wax buildup at home, such as using ear drops or other earwax-softening agents. People shouldn't use ear drops if they have an ear infection unless it's recommended by a health care provider.
Don't try to dig it out
Never attempt to dig out excessive or hardened earwax with available items, such as a paper clip, a cotton swab or a hairpin. You may push the wax farther into your ear and cause serious damage to the lining of your ear canal or eardrum.
Some people try to remove earwax themselves using a technique called ear candling (ear coning). Ear candling involves lighting one end of a hollow, cone-shaped candle and placing the other unlit end into the ear. The idea is that the heat from the flame will create a vacuum seal that draws wax up and out of the ear.
However, ear candling isn't a recommended treatment for earwax blockage. Research has found that ear candling doesn't work. It may also burn or damage the ear.
Essential oils — such as tea tree oil or garlic oil — are also not a proven treatment for earwax blockage. There is no data that shows they are safe for earwax removal, or that they work.
Talk to your health care provider before trying any alternative remedies for removing earwax.
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your health care provider. In some rare cases, however, you may be referred to a provider with special training in ear disorders (ear, nose and throat specialist).
As you prepare for your appointment, it's a good idea to write a list of questions. Your health care provider may have questions for you as well, such as:
- How long have you been having symptoms, such as earache or hearing loss?
- Have you had any drainage from your ears?
- Have you had earache, trouble hearing or drainage in the past?
- Do your symptoms happen all the time or only sometimes?