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Earwax

Earwax

Topic Overview

Anatomy of the ear

Earwax is a naturally produced substance that protects the ear canal. It is a mixture of skin, sweat, hair, and debris (such as shampoo and dirt) held together with a fluid secreted by glands inside the ear canal (ceruminous glands). The ear canals are self-cleaning.

Earwax helps filter dust, keeps the ears clean, and protects the ear canal from infection. Normally, earwax is a self-draining liquid that does not cause problems. As the skin of the ear canal sheds, the wax is carried to the outer part of the ear canal and drains from the ear by itself.

Earwax ranges in color from light to dark brown or orange. In children, earwax is usually softer and lighter than the earwax produced by adults. Children produce a lot of earwax, which tapers off as they grow older.

Earwax is normally produced only in the outer half of the ear canal and will not become deeply impacted unless it is pushed in. The ear canal may become blocked (impacted) when attempts to clean the ear with cotton swabs, bobby pins, or a finger push wax deeply into the ear canal. Impacted earwax may cause some hearing loss or other problems, such as ringing in the ears (tinnitus), a full feeling in the ears, or vertigo. Poking at the wax with cotton swabs, your fingers, or other objects usually only further compacts the wax against the eardrum.

Most earwax problems can be handled with home treatment. Professional help may be needed to remove tightly packed earwax.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Do you have an earwax problem?
Yes
Earwax problem
No
Earwax problem
How old are you?
Less than 12 years
Less than 12 years
12 years or older
12 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female
Do you think you may have an ear infection?
Pain and discharge from the ear are the usual symptoms of infection.
Yes
Possible ear infection
No
Possible ear infection
Do you have vertigo?
Yes
Vertigo
No
Vertigo
Do you have tubes in your ears?
Yes
Ear tubes
No
Ear tubes
Do you have any discomfort in your ears?
Yes
Ear discomfort
No
Ear discomfort
Have you had any ear symptoms for more than a week?
Yes
Ear symptoms for more than 1 week
No
Ear symptoms for more than 1 week

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.

Make an Appointment

Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.

  • Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
  • If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
  • If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.
Ear Problems and Injuries, Age 12 and Older
Ear Problems and Injuries, Age 11 and Younger

Seek Care Today

Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.

  • Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
  • If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
  • If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.

Vertigo is the feeling that you or your surroundings are moving when there is no actual movement. It may feel like spinning, whirling, or tilting. Vertigo may make you sick to your stomach, and you may have trouble standing, walking, or keeping your balance.

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.

Home Treatment

Do not try to remove earwax if you have ear pain or a discharge that looks different than earwax, if you think you have a ruptured eardrum, if you have had ear surgery, or if you have tubes in your ears.

  • Soften and loosen the earwax with warm mineral oil or a mixture of hydrogen peroxide mixed with an equal amount of room-temperature water. Place 2 drops of the fluid, warmed to body temperature, in the ear twice a day for up to 5 days. Be sure to warm the fluid because cold fluid can cause pain and dizziness.
  • Once the wax is loose and soft, all that is usually needed to remove it from the ear canal is a gentle, warm shower. Direct the water into the ear, then tip your head to let the earwax drain out. Dry your ear thoroughly with a hair dryer set on low. Hold the dryer several inches (centimeters) from your ear.
  • If the warm mineral oil and shower don't work, use a nonprescription wax softener followed by gentle flushing with an ear syringe each night for a week or two. Make sure the flushing solution is body temperature. Cool or hot fluids in the ear can cause dizziness.
  • Do not use cotton swabs, bobby pins, or other objects to clean the ear.
  • Do not use a dental irrigation device, such as a Water Pik, to remove earwax. The force of the water injures the ear canal and ruptures the eardrum.
  • Do not use ear candles. They have no proven benefit in the removal of earwax and can cause serious injury.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Other symptoms develop, such as ear pain, hearing loss, ringing in the ears, dizziness, severe itching, or bad-smelling discharge from the ear.
  • Symptoms become more severe or frequent.

Prevention

Earwax is a protective substance produced in the ear canal. It usually flows out of the ear by itself without problems. In general, the best way to prevent infection or impacted earwax is to leave earwax alone.

  • You can keep earwax soft by inserting a few drops of mineral oil or hydrogen peroxide mixed with warm water into your ear.
  • Do not use cotton swabs, bobby pins, or other substances to remove earwax.
  • Try not to get water, soap, or shampoo in your ear canal when you shower. Keep soap, bubble bath, and shampoo out of the ear canal. These products can cause itching and irritation.
  • Keep your ears dry.
    • When you rinse your hair, keep your head down with your chin toward your chest or pull the outside of your ear down over the ear canal.
    • After swimming or showering, shake your head to remove water from the ear canal.
    • Gently dry your ears with the corner of a tissue or towel, or use a blow-dryer on its lowest setting. Hold the dryer several inches (centimeters) from your ear.
    • Put a few drops of rubbing alcohol or rubbing alcohol mixed with an equal amount of white vinegar into the ear after swimming or showering. Wiggle the outside of the ear to let the liquid enter the ear canal, then tilt your head and let it drain out. You can also use nonprescription drops, such as Swim-Ear, to keep the inside of your ear dry.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What are your main symptoms?
    • Do you have ear pain?
    • Do you have ringing in your ears?
    • Do you have trouble hearing?
  • What home treatment methods have you tried?
  • What nonprescription earwax softeners have you used?
  • Have you ever had a ruptured eardrum?
  • Do you wear hearing aids?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Current as of June 4, 2014

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