Cerumen, also known as earwax, is naturally produced by the glands in the ears to lubricate the ear canals and keep dust and debris from getting too far down in the ear canal.
Cerumen typically clears itself from the ears, but in some instances can accumulate and cause a blockage.
Symptoms of a cerumen blockage include:
- Tinnitus (noise in the ear)
- Hearing loss
- Ear pressure
If a blockage occurs, it may need to be removed. This can be done at home or at your doctor's office, depending on the amount and severity of the blockage.
How Not to Remove Earwax Buildup
People commonly use cotton swabs to try and remove earwax or dislodge a blockage. However, this can sometimes cause more problems as cotton swabs may push the blockage further down into the ear canal, risking even more damage to the ear.
Cotton swabs themselves can also be accidentally inserted too far into the ear canal and can potentially damage your ear, including the possibility of rupturing your eardrum.
Health professionals generally agree that cotton swabs are a bad idea for removing earwax and should only be used on the outer portions of your ear. You should never insert cotton swabs or any small object into your ear canal.
At-Home Earwax Removal
In some instances, your physician may send you home with an at-home earwax removal kit. Earwax removal kits can also be purchased over the counter in most drug stores.
These kits generally consist of a soft bulb syringe and a liquid that softens earwax. You will be given directions on how much and how often to apply the liquid to your ear canals, allowing it to sit for a while in your ears to soften up the earwax. Bubbling and fizzing sensations in your ears is normal with use. You will then use the bulb syringe to gently flush your ears with warm water to remove the earwax. It may take several days to completely clear earwax blockages from your ear. There are contraindications to using these kits in some people and with some ear conditions. Before attempting at-home earwax removal, it is advised to speak with your doctor to be sure it is safe for you. In general, these kits are to be used for a specified period of time and not as an ongoing management of earwax.
Removal at Your Doctor's Office
If the earwax blockage is more significant, it may need to be removed in your doctor's office. Physicians and audiologists typically use one of several methods to remove earwax: irrigation, suction or curettage.
Irrigation involves the controlled use of sterile water squirted into the ear canal to help flush out debris.
Suction involves the use of a small vacuum with a sterile attachment that is inserted into the ear canal to draw out debris and earwax. This technique is often used when the eardrum is not visible enough to determine whether there is a hole in the eardrum, or in the case of very moist cerumen (earwax).
Another method is curettage, which involves the use of a curved tool called a curette. This tool is used to scrape or scoop out the wax, sometimes in conjunction with other methods, such as irrigation or suction. Unlike at-home earwax removal kits, your doctor may use stronger earwax removal medications in conjunction with irrigation or suction. Carbamide peroxide is typically the main ingredient in these treatments.
If you experience pain or discomfort as a result of earwax, or suspect you have a blockage, it's important that you see your doctor as soon as possible to address the issue. Removing earwax doesn't have to be painful and should bring you relief.