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Ear Irrigation

Earwax, technically known as “cerumen” is a bodily production that is actually pretty useful- in small amounts, that is.  It naturally cleans as it moves from the inner part of the canal outwards. It gathers dead skin cells, hair, and dirt along the way.  In normal circumstances, excess wax finds its way out of the canal and into the ear opening naturally, and then it is washed away.  It also protects the ear canal skin from irritation due to water, dust, foreign particles, and microorganisms.  Tests have shown that earwax actually contains antifungal properties, and so if your ears don’t have enough earwax, they’re likely to feel itchy and uncomfortable. So, using ear swabs to clear earwax is unnecessary and not recommended.

Why do some ears produce a lot of earwax?

Excessive wax production can be the result of an overproduction by your glands, oftentimes seen in the summer as you sweat more.  Conditions such as narrowing ear canals, overgrowth of hair in the canals, hypothyroidism, and diabetes can also contribute to more wax production.  Additionally, you are more likely to have wax buildup if you frequently use earphones or wear hearing aids. They can inadvertently prevent earwax from coming out of the ear canals naturally and cause blockages.  Still, excess wax alone doesn’t lead to blockage.  In fact, the most common cause of earwax blockage is at home removal, when cotton swabs, bobby pins, or other objects are used and inadvertently push wax deeper into the canal, creating a blockage, or impacted wax.

When earwax accumulates and becomes hard in a way in which it partially blocks or even impacts the ear, it can cause a feeling of fullness, hearing loss, ear discomfort, tinnitus, and sometimes even vertigo (dizziness) if it presses against the ear canal/eardrum.

Home Remedies

Very basic cleaning of the ear such as wiping around around the outside of the ear and the canal opening with a small washcloth.  

Other home remedies as ear drops, from a local pharmacy include:  

  • The use of hydrogen peroxide, a mild antiseptic 
  • Wax softening products, such as EarwaxMD or Debrox 
  • Baby oil, olive oil, or mineral oil
  • Glycerin

To use any of the above as ear drops, one should tilt the head so the affected ear faces upward, place two to three drops in it, wait for one to two minutes in this position, then tilt the head so that the liquid can drain out (and be absorbed by a towel or napkin).  This may need to be repeated several times a week for one to two weeks to help the earwax soften and work its way out.  It is helpful to use drops nightly before sleeping to allow the ear(s) to absorb the drops more readily.

Ear Candling as a Home Remedy

Ear candling is an alternative remedy some people use to draw earwax out of the ear canal.  Ear candles are typically about ten inches long, hollow, and tapered.  They are usually made of fabric soaked in wax (paraffin/beeswax).  To perform ear candling, you lie on your side and insert the candle into the ear, with the widest end lit.  A square or circle made of paper, tin foil, or plastic acts as a cover to prevent hot wax from dripping onto the face. 

Ear candling has not been scientifically proven as an effective method of earwax removal.  Health authorities such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) identify the risks of ear candling as burning the face/neck/eardrum/middle ear/ear canal from hot wax, starting a fire, perforating the eardrum, blocking the ear canal with candle wax, bleeding, contracting secondary infections, and experiencing temporary hearing loss.  These risks increase significantly when ear candling is administered to children, as they may move around during the procedure, causing hot wax to fall outside the protection of the covering.

How is earwax professionally treated?

If home remedies are not bringing about results, you should seek professional care to remove the earwax.  Never use a cotton swap, bobby pin, or sharp object to remove it yourself, as this can cause damage to further impact your ears and/or damage sensitive tissues in the ear (such as the eardrum).

A professional assessment of whether the earwax is partially or fully occluding the ear canal as well as the consistency of the earwax (hard or soft) can determine the course of treatment.  

What is Ear Irrigation?

Ear Irrigation, or the procedure of applying high pressure flow of water into the ear canal to remove impacted wax, may be used, especially if there is a plug of wax present. In some offices, a high -pressure flow of water using a metal syringe is used to dislodge and remove earwax.  Some risks using this method is difficulty controlling the pressure as well as regulating the water temperature.  A lack of control over the water pressure can potentially perforate the eardrum if too much pressure is applied.  If the water temperature is above or below body temperature by more or less than seven degrees or more, the sensation of vertigo (dizziness) may be experienced.  This method of ear irrigation may take several minutes or more (due to several irrigations), depending on how hard and/or impacted the wax is, per ear.

In our audiology office in Lawrenceville New Jersey, we use the Earigator, which is a machine which has a self-contained temperature control function.  This consistently regulates the water temperature to match your body temperature so that caloric effects or unwanted sensations of vertigo are avoided.  Earwax is irrigated quickly and comfortably through precision-level pressure control in a matter of seconds for partially occluding earwax, or about three to five minutes per ear for more occluded ear canals.

Earwax irrigation is not for everyone.  If you have a perforated eardrum, a tube in the eardrum, a current or recurrent bout of otitis media (middle ear infection), cleft palate, and/or there is mucous discharge from the ear, irrigation may be contraindicated.

Is Ear Irrigation Safe?

Ear irrigation is generally considered safe if you do not have any of the conditions listed above, and if it is conducted professionally, following guidelines on proper pressure and water temperature.  Professional instruments such as the Earigator make it easy to apply the proper pressure and water temperature to ensure the eardrum remains intact and no caloric effects are experienced.  At most, you may feel lingering moisture in the ear canals, which can be dried out by the professional administering the irrigation in the office post procedure.  You may also find it helpful to lie on the affected side (ear facing down) for a few minutes to allow for any remaining moisture to work its way out of your ear canal using the natural pull of gravity.Curious about what an earigator ear irrigation looks like?  Check out this link to see how one patient’s impacted ears were free or earwax in seconds!

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