UT University Health Services

Earwax

What is earwax?

Earwax (also called cerumen) is made by glands in the outer part of the ear canal. Earwax helps your ear stay healthy. It helps stop dust, dirt, and other substances from getting into the ear canal. Earwax also helps to maintain the ear canal's acid balance and to protect the ears from infection.

It is healthy to have earwax inside the ear canal. It is not a sign of poor hygiene. Usually, the ears constantly clean themselves by slowly moving earwax and debris out of the ear canal opening. Most of the time, we are unaware of this cleaning process.

When is earwax a problem?

Fresh earwax is soft and yellow. Older earwax is brown or black. It may even look like blood. The wax may also be dry, white, and flaky.

Too much earwax in the ear can be uncomfortable. If too much earwax is in the ear canal, it may act like an earplug, blocking sound entering the ear and making it harder to hear.

What causes excess earwax buildup?

No one knows for sure why some people have problems with earwax and others don't. Older adults tend to have more problems with earwax than younger adults. People, especially older men, with coarse wiry hairs in the ears may have more problems. Some people may have the problem in just one ear. Hearing aid users must watch for a buildup of earwax because the ear mold of a hearing aid acts like a dam, preventing the wax from moving out of the ear canal.

Your ear can also get blocked with earwax if you use objects to clean the ear canal. An object may push earwax deeper into the ear canal and compact it. The earwax hardens and may cause a sudden loss of hearing or ear pain.

Never try to remove earwax yourself with objects such as a cotton-tipped swab, car key, bobby pin, toothpick, matchstick, or high-pressure water spray. These are unsafe tools for removing earwax and often push the earwax further down the ear canal toward the eardrum. Such objects hurt the ear canal and can make a hole in the eardrum. They may damage the small bones in the middle ear behind the eardrum. They can even damage the inner ear, causing permanent hearing loss.

How is earwax buildup treated?

There are safe ways to remove earwax if it is causing pain or loss of hearing. You can use baby oil, mineral oil, or special ear drops to soften the earwax. This may be enough to get extra wax to move slowly out of the ear. The wax will fall out or may be cleaned safely from the outer ear with a washcloth.

Earwax that is causing problems can be removed by your healthcare provider. Your provider may use irrigation (ear washes), a curette (tiny spoon-shaped tool), or suction.

Your healthcare provider may refer you to an ear-nose-throat (ENT) specialist for earwax removal if you have:

  • frequent blockages by earwax
  • chronic ear disease
  • an eardrum with a tear or hole in it (now or in the past)
  • only one ear with good hearing and that ear is the one with the earwax buildup.

How can I take care of myself?

Unless there is a blockage, it is best to leave earwax alone. Remember, you need earwax to protect the ear. It does not mean that your ears are not clean.

If you tend to have problems with earwax buildup:

  • Don't try to soften the wax in your ear if you have ear pain or cold symptoms, or if your eardrum has ever had a hole or tear.
  • Don't put any object (such as cotton swabs or pencils) inside your ears to try to clean them.
  • See your healthcare provider if you develop pain or discomfort in one or both ears or if you notice a change in your hearing.

How can I remove ear wax at home?

Unless there is a blockage, it is best to leave earwax alone. Remember, you need earwax to protect the ear. It does not mean that your ears are not clean.

There is a safe home remedy for removing ear wax, as long as you do not have any complicating factors, such as pain, dizziness, or discharge other than wax. Do not attempt to remove ear wax yourself if you have a history of perforated eardrums, ear tubes, ear surgery, or any other significant ear disorder, unless directed by a healthcare provider.

You will need:

  • a shower with warm water
  • hydrogen peroxide, mineral oil, or ear wax removal drops
  • a bulb syringe

Before getting into the shower, pour a few drops of hydrogen peroxide into the affected ear canal. Then lie down on the opposite side or just stand with your head tilted to one side for a couple of minutes. You may hear a crackling or bubbling sound as the hydrogen peroxide works.

While in the shower, suck up warm water from the palm of one hand into the bulb syringe. Then, with the head straight, gently place the tip of the syringe into the ear canal parallel to the floor (Diagram A) and slightly towards the back of the head (Diagram B).

Do not point the tip of the syringe towards the front of the head. (It is okay if the syringe points slightly upward.) As soon as the tip stops, vigorously squirt the warm water into the ear canal. You can repeat this process as often as needed until wax is removed. If you experience pain at any point, stop immediately and call the UHS Nurse Advice Line at (512) 475-6877 (NURS) or call (512) 471-4955 during regular business hours to schedule an appointment.

Sometimes the wax becomes so hard that it simply will not come out despite repeated applications of hydrogen peroxide. In this case, you will need to place several drops of mineral oil or ear wax removal drops into the affected canal, wait one day for the wax to soften and repeat the irrigation process. You may place a cotton ball in the outer ear to prevent the drops from draining out.

You can find all of the necessary supplies at the UHS Pharmacy, any other drug store, and at any large grocery store.

Current research has shown ear candles to be ineffective. We do not recommend them in any circumstance.

What to do if my healthcare provider recommended I have my ears washed?

  • Schedule an appointment with a nurse.
  • Ear irrigation should not be painful, so let the nursing staff or your healthcare provider know if you experience discomfort.
  • Follow any instructions that you are given (e.g. keep the ear canal dry until your appointment; use any prescribed or recommended ear drops before your next appointment).
  • Allow one hour for your appointment. It may take a little longer if we're irrigating both ears.
  • Do not wear any type of earrings.
  • Your clothing may get a little wet during irrigation.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2018 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All Rights Reserved.

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