What Is Earwax?
Cerumen, or earwax, is the yellow-orange substance normally secreted by glands in the outer portion of the ear canal (the tube leading to the eardrum). The main function of wax is to lubricate the canal, protecting the skin from infection and other conditions. The wax can cause serious problems when it’s oversecreted and builds up excessively in the ear, or when it’s pushed deep into the ear canal. This often “plugs” the ear, leading to discomfort and a feeling of fullness.
Symptoms of Earwax
- Diminution of hearing, with or without pain
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ear)
- Pain of varying intensity (sometimes)
- Balance problems (rare)
- A sensation of fullness inside the ear
What Causes Earwax?
Ordinarily, earwax gradually dries up in small particles and migrates to the outer ear, where it falls out or is washed off. Buildup occurs when the wax inexplicably moves inward instead. Many times, earwax problems are self-induced. Some people use cotton swabs or even bobby pins to clean wax from their ear canal. Such objects can push wax up against the eardrum and temporarily impair hearing. They can also irritate the skin or, far worse, perforate the drum.
What If You Do Nothing?
Serious buildups of wax need to be initially treated by a physician, otherwise pain, hearing, and balance problems may develop.
Home Remedies for Earwax
- Clean your ears methodically. If wax does accumulate, use an eyedropper to put a drop or two of warm (not hot) mineral or vegetable oil in each ear twice a day. (Over-the-counter earwax softeners are generally safe, but are no more effective than mineral oil and occasionally can cause allergic reactions.) Then, using a bulb syringe, flush the ear with lukewarm water, holding your head upright and then turning it sideways to allow the water to drain. (However, if you have a perforated eardrum, never put any liquid in your ear.) Don’t use hydrogen peroxide or any other product that causes fizzing in your ear, since pressure can build up that might injure your eardrum.
If you don’t have a tendency to produce excess earwax, simply avoid using cotton-tip applicators for cleaning your ears. Instead, clean and dry your outer ears with cotton balls after bathing.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
If your ear remains blocked because of impacted wax, consult your doctor. Contact your physician if you develop pain, swelling, tenderness, and have persistent hearing loss and milky discharge. These may be signs of an ear infection.
What Your Doctor Will Do
After a careful examination, if an infection has been ruled out, your physician may irrigate your ear and soften the wax for removal. If you regularly develop painful earwax buildups, you may need to schedule regular appointments for wax removal every 6 or 12 months.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media