Earwax, medically known as cerumen, is a concoction of epithelium cells, dust, and oily secretions produced by the sebaceous and ceruminous glands in the ear canal that has protective, lubricating, and antibacterial properties.
The primary function of this natural secretion is to keep the ear canal lubricated, protect the ears from water, hamper the growth of bacteria, and trap dust, dirt, and other debris from getting lodged deeper into the ear canal.
Because the ear is essentially self-cleaning, there is usually no need to meddle with the ear with penetrative cleaning tools to get rid of earwax. Most of the time, there is a slow and orderly migration process inside the ear canal in which earwax and skin cells are transported from the eardrum to the ear opening, where it can be easily removed.
However, problems can occur when there is a blockage or impaction of earwax. It can accumulate deep inside the ear canal mainly due to the use of objects, such as bobby pins or cotton swabs, which ultimately push the wax deep inside the ear. People who use earplugs or hearing aids are also more prone to earwax blockage.
This gradual buildup of earwax within the ear canal is not only discomforting and unsightly but can also hamper your hearing temporarily.
Causes of Earwax Buildup/Blockage
- Excessive earwax also may buildup due to a narrowing of the ear canal resulting from some kind of infection or disease of the skin, bones, or connective tissue.
- It can also happen due to the production of a less fluid form of cerumen or overproduction of cerumen due to some trauma or blockage within the ear canal.
- A deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, and magnesium can also produce more earwax.
- When incoming debris sticks to the earwax and accumulates over time within the ear canal, the wax and debris tend to form a dry, hardened consolidated mass that often causes blockage.
- Certain ethnicities are naturally more prone to producing dry earwax that is more likely to clump. For instance, East Asians have a higher likelihood of developing this condition as dry earwax is a trait commonly associated with them.
- Eczema and other conditions that result in dry, flaking skin can be responsible for the production of hard earwax.
- The consistency of earwax secretion also tends to get harder and drier with advancing age, such that it doesn’t travel as easily through the ear canal and is less likely to fall off on its own.
Signs and Symptoms of Earwax Buildup
Some of the signs and symptoms of the accumulation of excessive earwax include:
- A sensation of blockage or fullness in the ear
- An uncomfortable sensation in the ear
- Difficulty hearing or temporary hearing loss
- Tinnitus or ringing in the ear
- Itchiness in the ear
- Discharge from the ear
- A bad odor coming from the ear
The standard treatment options for earwax removal include:
- Daily administration of hydrogen peroxide or enzyme-containing eardrops for a few days to loosen and dislodge the impacted earwax and thereby facilitate its natural expulsion out of the cavity.
- People with a properly intact eardrum and without an ongoing ear infection can be treated by flushing out the jammed wax using a rubber-bulb syringe full of lukewarm water or a water jet device such as a Waterpik for irrigation. This method is usually swift and only slightly uncomfortable but runs the risk of transmitting bacteria into the ear and thereby can cause an infection.
- Microsuction is a noisy, slightly discomforting yet largely painless procedure wherein a small instrument such as a curette or a cerumen spoon is used to scoop the earwax out of your ear.
Not all these treatments are suitable for everyone. Your pharmacist or doctor will take a closer look inside your inner ear using an otoscope, a special instrument that lights and magnifies your ear cavity. Based on the extent of the damage and only after ruling out signs of an ear infection and a ruptured eardrum, the doctor will lay down the most suitable treatment plan with the least associated risks or side effects.
You can get help from your family physician or an ear specialist to remove the earwax. There are also ear drops and wax removal kits on the market that you can buy, but their exorbitant prices are likely to set your ears ringing.
Lucky for you, there are many simple natural remedies that offer a cost-effective alternative for dislodging and expelling hardened earwax from your ears. However, you must get your doctor to give his go signal.
For any of these remedies to work, you may need to repeat them several times depending on the extent of the wax accumulation. However, if you happen to have a perforated eardrum or an infected ear, self-treatment using these remedies is not recommended. Seek professional medical help to get relief from the condition instead.
Here are 10 effective home remedies to remove earwax.
1. Salt Water
Salt water is the best earwax removal solution that can be used at home. It can soften and loosen the wax accumulated inside the ear, making it easy to get rid of.
A study published in the British Journal of General Practice concluded that saline water is as effective as any proprietary agent for earwax treatment.
- Mix 1 teaspoon of salt in 1/2 cup of warm water until the salt dissolves completely.
- Soak a cotton ball in the saline solution.
- Tilt the affected ear up towards the sky. Squeeze the cotton ball to put a few drops of the saline water into the ear.
- Stay in the same position for 3–5 minutes.
- Next, tilt your head in the opposite direction to allow the saline water to drain out.
- Clean the outer part of your ear with a clean cloth to remove the softened wax.
2. Hydrogen Peroxide
Hydrogen peroxide is another very effective remedy for excessive and hardened earwax accumulation. Due to its effervescent property, hydrogen peroxide can remove the earwax and debris from the ear canal very easily. This remedy, however, is found to be effective against small blockages only.
- Mix equal parts of hydrogen peroxide (3 percent) and water.
- Fill an ear dropper with this solution.
- Tilt your head sideways and put a few drops of this solution into the ear.
- Stay in this position for some time, and then tilt your head towards the opposite side to drain out the solution.
- Wipe away the earwax using a clean cloth.
3. Mineral Oil
Regular cleaning of the ear cavity using warm mineral oil is a safe and effective way to prevent earwax buildup. This technique helps soften and break up the impacted earwax and, subsequently, facilitates its smooth and easy expulsion out of the ear. However, this method has proved to be more or less ineffective in loosening stubborn blocks.
- Fill an ear dropper with slightly warm mineral oil; make sure it is not too hot.
- Tilt the affected ear toward the sky and put two to five drops of the mineral oil into the ear.
- Place a cotton ball at the ear opening to prevent the oil from oozing out.
- Leave it for several minutes.
- Remove the cotton ball and tilt your head the opposite direction to drain out the extra oil.
- Clean the ear opening with a soft cloth.
- Instead of mineral oil, you can also use baby oil.
4. Vinegar and Rubbing Alcohol
An age-old remedy to remove excess wax from your ear is using a vinegar and rubbing alcohol solution.
The mixture will help dissolve the earwax. Plus, the alcohol will serve as a drying agent and evaporate at a low temperature, and the vinegar will fight bacteria and fungi and, hence, prevent any kind of ear infection.
- Mix equal parts of white vinegar and rubbing alcohol in a bowl.
- Soak a cotton ball in the solution.
- Tilt the affected ear toward the sky and then squeeze two or three drops of this solution into the ear.
- Wait for 5 minutes and tilt your head to the opposite direction so that gravity can bring out the solution as well as the wax.
- Gently remove the earwax from the outer ear using an earbud.
This remedy can also be used to treat swimmer’s ear.
5. Ear Irrigation with Warm Water
Flushing your ear with warm water will also help get rid of excess earwax. The gentle force of the water will dislodge the wax, making it easier to remove. Be sure to use only sterilized water.
- Fill a rubber-bulb syringe with slightly warm water (body temperature).
- Tilt your head to the side and pull the outer ear to straighten the ear canal.
- Use a syringe to put a small amount of water into the ear canal.
- Leave it for a minute.
- Then, tilt your head to the opposite side and let gravity do its work.
- Clean away the water and earwax with a clean cloth.
6. Olive Oil/Coconut Oil
Another simple way to remove excess earwax is olive oil/coconut oil. Olive oil/coconut oil can soften the wax, making it easier to come out of the ear. Also, its antiseptic properties will reduce the risk of ear infection.
- Slightly warm some olive oil/coconut oil.
- Using a dropper, put three or four drops of the warm oil into the affected ear.
- Allow it to settle for 10 minutes so that the earwax becomes soft.
- Tilt your head sideways and remove the oil and wax using earbuds.
Alternatively, you can use mustard oil.
7. Almond Oil
Almond oil can also aid in the removal of earwax. This oil serves as a lubricant and softener for wax, making it easy for you to clear the wax build up in your ear.
- Take room-temperature almond oil and fill an ear dropper with it.
- Tilt the affected ear upward, and then put five drops of almond oil in the ear using the dropper.
- Stay in that positive for 10 to 15 minutes to allow the oil to soak into the hardened wax.
- Place a tissue over the oiled ear and tilt to the other side to drain out the excess oil and the wax.
- Clean out the ear and wax with a soft cloth.
8. Baking Soda
- Mix 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda in 2 teaspoons of water.
- Tilt your head and use a dropper to put several drops of this solution in the affected ear.
- Wait for 10 minutes and then flush warm water gently into the ear using a rubber-bulb syringe.
- Tilt the head toward the opposite direction to drain out the excess solution and the dissolved earwax.
- Clean your outer ear with a soft cloth.
Another common method for removing hardened earwax is to use glycerin. The lubricating and moisturizing nature of glycerin will help loosen impacted wax.
- Tilt your head toward the sky and use a dropper to put three or four drops of glycerin in your ear.
- Put a cotton ball at the opening of your ear and leave it for a few hours.
- Remove the cotton ball and gently flush warm water in your ear.
- Tilt your ear in the opposite direction to drain out the water completely.
- Gently dry the outer ear with a towel or a handheld hair dryer.
10. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
One of the most common causes of excessive earwax production is a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids. So, increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids can help solve the problem of excess wax accumulating inside the ear.
- Take a high-quality omega-3 fatty acid supplement. Consult your doctor for the correct dosage.
- Also include foods rich in omega-3 in your diet, such as walnuts, cod liver oil, avocados, salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, albacore, and ground flaxseed in your diet.
There are certain factors that increase one’s predisposition to developing an earwax-induced blockage. These include:
- Narrow or underdeveloped ear canals
- Impacted earwax and recurrent ear infections
- Excessive hair growth in the ear canals
- Advancing age, which increases the risk of earwax impaction as the secretion tends to become more hard and dry
- A condition called osteomata characterized by benign bony protrusions in the outer part of the ear canal
Prevention of Earwax Blockage
Because the production of earwax and the width and shape of your ear canal is beyond your control, there is not much you can do about managing these natural secretions. However, there are certain preventive measures that can go a long way in reducing the incidence of wax buildup:
- Refrain from cleaning your ear canals using cotton swabs that rid the ear of its natural oils as well as end up pushing the wax further down into the cavity.
- Avoid using sharp and invasive tools for earwax removal because they can irritate the sensitive skin, introduce infection-causing bacteria into the cavity, lodge the wax further into the canal, or puncture your eardrum.
- Softening the impacted wax by using ear drops, oils, or water irrigation is often the first-line treatment to facilitate the natural expulsion of consolidated earwax.
- To avoid aggravating the lining of your ear canal or damaging your eardrum with unnecessary and aggressive poking and digging, it is best to limit your ear cleaning efforts to the outer ear only.
- A moisturizing lotion called Ceridal Lipolotion can be effective in treating the dry sensitive skin of the ear and preventing future blockages.
- To alleviate this problem, it is essential to manage and treat any associated inflammatory skin conditions that may be at the root of hardened secretions or dry, flaky skin.
The following are certain complications that may result if an earwax blockage is not properly treated or spirals to a serious degree:
- Ruptured eardrum
- Infection in the middle ear
- External-ear infection (swimmer’s ear )
- Permanent loss of hearing arising from acoustic trauma
When to See a Doctor
If you notice any discomfort or symptoms that are associated with an ear blockage caused by cerumen impaction, it’s imperative that you get your ear checked by a doctor rather than start self-treatment.
If you experience particularly troublesome symptoms that fail to subside even after 3–5 days of the prescribed initial treatment with ear drops, get help from your doctor to reevaluate your options for a better alternative or upgrade. A visit to the doctor is particularly warranted if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Persistently running a high fever
- Excessive vomiting
- A severe spinning or dizzying sensation, loss of balance, or inability to walk
- Sudden loss of hearing
- Drainage from the ear
- Acute ear pain
Can You Use Earbuds or Ear Candles for Earwax Removal?
Two of the alternative treatments for earwax removal that have received a lot of coverage but have been proven to be more damaging than helpful involve the use of hollow, cone-shaped Hopi ear candles and invasive earbuds. Each comes with its own set of potentially dangerous ramifications that make them ill-advised solutions to your earwax problem.
- The ear candling technique entails inserting a lighted candle into the ear such that the heat from the flame can dissolve the consolidated wax and draw it out of the ear. This method poses the risk of injury as it can cause burns, further obstruction, and even eardrum rupture.
- Similarly, digging into your ear cavity with earbuds can irritate the ear canal lining by stripping it of its natural oils and causing an itch or pain. Moreover, the abrasive and aggressive insertion of such tools can further push the wax deeper into the cavity and irritate the delicate skin of the inner ear along the way.
- Don’t use cold water to drain out the excess earwax as it can cause dizziness.
- Don’t spray water or any liquid inside the ear with force as it can damage the inner ear and eardrums.
- Do not put hot oil in the ears as it can burn the skin inside the ear or eardrum, leading to an ear infection. It is essential that you check the temperature of any cleaning solution before using it to clean your ear.
- Do not clean your ears too often or too aggressively.
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