Cerumen, commonly called ear wax, has both anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. It protects the tympanic member (aka – the ear drum) from harmful substances such as dust, hair or small insects.
Cerumen typically clears itself from the ears, but in some instances can accumulate and cause a blockage, especially if you wear earmolds or hearing aids.
Symptoms of a cerumen blockage include:
- Tinnitus (ringing of the ears)
- Decreased hearing
- Feeling of ear fullness
If a blockage occurs, it may need to be removed. This can be done at home or at your Audiologist’s office, depending on the size and severity of the blockage.
At-home earwax removal
In some instances, your physician may send patients 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 liquid that softens earwax and a small rubber bulb syringe. 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 short amount of time in your ears to soften up the earwax. Bubbling and fizzing sensations in your ears are normal with use. You will then use the bulb syringe to gently flush your ears with warm (not hot) 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. Some contraindications include: previous ear surgery or trauma, and history of recurrent ear infections. Before attempting at-home earwax removal, it is advised to speak with your Audiologist to be sure it is safe for you.
Earwax removal methods to avoid
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 compact wax further or puncture your eardrum. Dr. Laura says “Q-tips should be used for arts and crafts, not for cleaning ears!”
Physicians 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.
Removal at your Audiologist’s office
If the earwax blockage is more significant, it may need to be removed at your Audiologist’s office. Audiologists typically use one of two methods to remove earwax: irrigation or curette.
Irrigation is the most common method your Audiologist will use to remove blockages. Unlike at-home earwax removal kits, your Audiologist may use stronger earwax removal medications in conjunction with irrigation. Carbamide peroxide is typically the main ingredient in these medications.
The other method is a curette. A curette is a long, curved tool that may also be used with suction to remove cerumen from the ear canal. Both of these tools are designed to loosen and remove wax, and are specifically designed for patient comfort
If you experience pain or discomfort as a result of earwax or suspect you have a blockage, it’s important that you see your Audiologist as soon as possible to address the issue. Removing earwax doesn’t have to be painful and should bring you relief.