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Earwax: Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

Earwax does an important job cleaning, lubricating and protecting the ear.

Earwax repels water and traps dirt. It is produced by glands in the ear canal.

Earwax usually dries up on its own and falls out of the ear, taking dirt with it.

However, if the ear makes too much wax, it can block the ear causing pain and a temporary loss of hearing.

Earwax causes

Blockage, or impaction, occurs when the wax gets pushed deep within the ear canal. Earwax blockage affects many people and is the most common ear problem doctors see.

  • The most common cause of this is the use of cotton buds (and other objects such as hair pins and rolled napkin corners), which push the wax deeper into the ear canal.
  • Hearing aid and earplug users are also more prone to earwax blockage.

Earwax symptoms

  • Impaired hearing
  • Dizziness
  • Ear pain
  • Plugged or fullness sensation
  • Ringing in the ear

When to seek medical care

If you experience any of the symptoms listed above, or notice drainage from the ear, seek medical advice.

Examinations and tests

A doctor can diagnose earwax blockage (or eardrum perforation) by listening to your symptoms and then looking into your ear with an otoscope.

Earwax treatment self-care at home

Earwax removal methods can be tried at home unless you have a perforation (hole) or tubes in your eardrum.

Over-the-counter wax softening drops or warmed olive oil may be put into the affected ear and then allowed to drain out after about five minutes.

Medical treatment for earwax

The doctor may remove the earwax with a small plastic spoon called a curette, or by irrigating the ear with warmed water, saline, docusate, sodium bicarbonate, or other prescription-strength eardrops.  

You may be referred to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist if the ear wax is unable to be removed by these methods and they may use suction to remove the wax while looking into the ear with a microscope.

Earwax prevention

Earwax blockage can be prevented by avoiding the use of cotton buds and other objects that push the wax deeper into the ear canal.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on December 30, 2013

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