The Truth About Earwax Removal

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Earwax is vital for protecting your ability to hear. But too much can sometimes accumulate and lead to itchiness, pain, a feeling of fullness, and even coughing. It can also temporarily muffle your hearing or cause tinnitus. Here, the best and safest ways to keep it in balance.

We all have sticky, oily earwax in our ear canals. And that's a good thing, in small doses.

In fact, earwax, also known as cerumen, has several helpful properties, says Stéphane Maison, Ph.D., assistant professor of otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School. Under normal circumstances, it naturally migrates from inside your ear canal outward. Along the way, the wax traps dust, dead skin, and other debris inside the ear canal, helping to keep your ears clean. The oily quality of earwax moisturizes the skin inside your ear canal, helping prevent cuts and scratches. And the wax’s acidity can destroy bacteria, protecting you from infection.

Anyone can find that they have more than an ideal amount of earwax, but about one-third of older adults have excessive earwax, along with two-thirds of nursing home residents. And age, indeed, is a key factor in how likely you are to have an overabundance of earwax, although genetics also plays a role, says Seth Schwartz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Listen for Life Center at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, and lead author of clinical practice guidelines on cerumen impaction for the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS).

“The consistency of wax tends to be drier as we age,” Schwartz says, making the stuff slower to move normally out of the ear, and more likely to accumulate. Cerumen buildup is also more common among people who use hearing aids, which can physically block wax from leaving the ear. (The AAO-HNS recommends hearing aid wearers have their ear canals checked by their doctors every three to six months.)

Safe Ways to Clean Your Ears at Home

Unless excessive earwax is causing problems for you—pain, reduced hearing, or any of the other problems mentioned above—you can leave it alone. 

But many people consider removing the wax a regular part of their hygiene routine. And several common removal methods—such as using cotton-tipped swabs or ear candles—can do harm, but no good. If you want to get rid of some of your earwax, consider the following:

Check out drugstore eardrops. Over-the-counter (OTC) ear drops, either oil- or water-based, may soften cerumen, making it easier for it to work its way out of your ear on its own. A 2018 analysis by the independent Cochrane collaboration found that ear drops may be helpful for clearing out cerumen, but that no specific type of ear drop worked better than others. Look for products labeled for clearing or removing ear wax.

Flush it out gently. Another recommended method: softly flushing your ears with fluid, using an ear irrigation kit. These OTC kits usually include a bulb syringe or another type of ear syringe, along with ear drops. (But talk with your doctor before using any OTC method if you’ve ever had ear surgery or a perforated eardrums.)

Skip the swabs. Resist the temptation to insert cotton-tipped swabs, hair pins, paper clips, or any other foreign object, into your ears. These can all cause serious ear injuries, including eardrum perforation.

They can also be counterproductive, Maison says. For instance, by using cotton swabs, “you’re pushing back the cerumen all the way to the eardrum,” he says. “The cerumen gets trapped, and prevents the ear drum from moving.” That impedes the normal movement of sound through the ear, leading to temporary hearing loss.

Avoid ear candling. This home remedy involves inserting a long, hollow tube, made of fabric soaked in beeswax or paraffin, into your ear, and lighting the other end on fire. This supposedly creates suction through the tube that draws out earwax.

The problem? Studies of the process have found that any wax drawn out is simply melted wax from the candle itself. And it carries significant risks, including burning yourself with the lit candle. For these reasons, the Food and Drug Administration has warned consumers against using ear candles.

Know when to get more help. If you’ve tried eardrops and/or irrigation, but can’t shake the itchiness, pain, or feelings of fullness in your ears, or you’re still experiencing tinnitus or muffled hearing, visit your primary care doctor. He or she may be able to more effectively irrigate your ear canal, or to manually remove an earwax blockage. The latter option requires some training and experience, so your primary care doctor may also refer you to an ear, nose, and throat doctor.

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