If you were to ask 10 people the question “How should I clean my ears?” you would most likely get 10 different answers. Some people use q-tips, others try ear candling, some prefer using hydrogen peroxide, and some will say that you should never clean your ears. The one answer you will hear any doctor tell you is that putting anything into your ear is generally a bad idea. While there are exceptions, your ears will normally clean themselves, and when that doesn’t happen, you should seek medical care.
Why Your Ears Make Wax
Ear wax, or cerumen, is produced by your ear to clean your ear. Ear wax is made in the outer ear canal where special glands produce it. Usually it either falls out or is washed away in the normal routine of life.
Ear wax helps to clean, protect, and lubricate your ears in a natural way. Ear wax accomplishes these three jobs in the following ways:
- Clean. Ear wax contains special chemicals that help to fight off infections. In fact, your ear wax has antibacterial properties that protects the sensitive skin in the ear canal.
- Protect. Your ear wax acts as a shield between your ears and the outside world. Dirt, sweat, or other objects try to enter your ear, but the ear wax traps it before it can travel far enough to cause damage.
- Lubricate. If you did not have ear wax, your ears would probably be dry, flaky, and itchy all the time. Your ear wax acts as a natural lubricant that reaches the part of your skin that other natural lubricants cannot.
Side Effects Of Excessive Earwax
Ear wax is really important in keeping your ears clean and functioning, but earwax buildup occurs in approximately 10% of children and 5% of adults. When excessive earwax goes untreated, it can lead to numerous problems included but not limited to:
- Pain or earache
- A feeling of “fullness” in the affected ear
- Itchiness in the ear
- Decreased hearing or hearing loss
- Ringing in the ear (tinnitus)
- A discharge or odor coming from the ear
- An ear infection
The Development Of Earwax
Special glands in your outer ear canal make secretions that then combine with dead skin cells in your ear to make earwax. Initially, your earwax is a yellowish color, but depending on what your earwax traps, that color can change. If your ear is functioning properly, it will continuously make and get rid of excess earwax so that you do not have to take extra steps to keep your ear clean. Generally, if you shower consistently and eat, the acts of chewing and washing your hair are enough to get rid of excess earwax. This allows your body to continually have the exact right amount.
Where Wax Comes From
Ear wax comes from the glands in your outer ear canal. Your ears affect your hearing and your balance, but they are also one of your most vulnerable organs to the effects of the outside world. Ear wax protects these organs from debris, sweat, and dirt that could cause ear infections or even loss of hearing. Aside from lubricating and providing chemicals to protect your ears, ear wax also keeps things out. Your ear wax traps unwanted particles and objects from entering your ear, and as such it is produced and acts in the outer canal.
Should You Clean Your Ears?
As a general rule, most people do not need to clean their ears. Your ears do a good job of cleaning themselves. There are times, however, that either your ear produces excess wax or it does not effectively get rid of wax. When this is the case, the earwax needs to be removed by cleaning your ears or an earwax removal procedure.
If you do not remove excess earwax, it can become impacted. Impacted earwax occurs when the wax builds up in your ear and blocks your ear canal. This can result in decreased hearing, ear infection or pain, and ultimately the need for medical care.
The most common situations in which earwax buildup and impacted ear wax occurs are:
- People who use cotton swabs or other items in their ears
- Elderly people
- Those that use hearing aids, ear plugs to sleep, or ear buds
When your ears are impacted, most people try to clean them out or remove the earwax on their own. While there are simple things that can be done to try and remove the wax, the best thing you can do is seek medical care.
Tips for Proper Ear Wax Cleaning
If you are experiencing some wax buildup but it is not too severe, there are a couple of ways that you can handle it on your own. Here are some “do’s” and “don’ts” that should help you not make a mistake with the one organ in your body that affects your hearing and balance.
- Try putting a few drops of baby oil in your ear and then wipe it away with a damp washcloth.
- Use an over-the-counter ear wax removal kit, and follow the instructions.
- Let your ears get wet in the shower or bath.
- Go to a doctor and let them decide how to remove the ear wax.
- Use cotton swabs. Ever. Too many people use q-tips or other swabs and all that does is push the earwax closer to the middle ear and then the inner ear.
- Use hydrogen peroxide. It will do the same thing as baby oil but the potential consequences are much worse.
- Use ear candles.
- Try to vacuum your own ear.
How Is Earwax Buildup And Blockage Diagnosed?
Your medical care provider can look into your ears with a special instrument called an otoscope. An otoscope shines a beam of light to help your doctor visualize and examine the condition of your ear canal and eardrum. When making a diagnosis, your doctor will also ask for symptoms you have experienced and examine the color and consistency of your ear wax to help make the correct diagnosis and subsequent treatment plan.
Symptoms Of Cerumen Impaction
If you have noticeable symptoms of earwax buildup, it is likely that the earwax is impacted. It is important, at this point, to see a doctor and get medical care for the issue so that further complications do not arise. Some of the symptoms that show impaction are:
- Ear pain.
- A feeling of fullness in your ear.
- Partial loss of hearing.
- Itching or discharge coming from your ear.
- Ringing in your ear or tinnitus.
- An unexplainable cough.
How Is Earwax Buildup And Blockage Treated?
The first step is to be diagnosed by an expert prior to starting any treatment. In the vast majority of cases, because your ear does such a good job of cleaning itself, intervention is not necessary. If, however, a problem is diagnosed, then an audiologist should use either curettage, irrigation, or suction to remove the excess earwax so that infection, loss of hearing, or other issues do not persist. If the buildup is not too great, your doctor may give you tips on how to clean it yourself the next time.
How Can I Prevent Earwax Buildup And Blockage?
The most important thing to do to prevent earwax buildup and blockage is to stop using cotton swabs. If you are not using cotton swabs, then softening the wax in your ears is your best bet. Use an at-home ear cleaning kit or put a few drops of baby oil in your ear each month for about two to three days. When you have finished the softening process, use a bulb-type syringe to clean your ear with warm water.
When To See A Doctor
You should see your doctor right away if you think you have symptoms of earwax impaction, especially if you have loss of hearing or ear pain. There could be an underlying cause that only a doctor could diagnose. If you have any of these three symptoms, you should go to a hospital immediately:
- Severe loss of balance or an inability to walk
- Persistent vomiting or high fever accompanied with ear pain
- Sudden loss of hearing