What is earwax?
Earwax (also called cerumen) is made by glands in the outer part of the ear canal. Earwax helps your ear stay healthy. It helps stop dust, dirt, and other substances from getting into the ear canal. Earwax also helps to maintain the ear canal’s acid balance and to protect the ears from infection. It is healthy to have earwax inside the ear canal. It is not a sign of poor hygiene. Usually, the ears constantly clean themselves by slowly moving earwax and debris out of the ear canal opening. Most of the time, we are unaware of this cleaning process.
When is earwax a problem?
Fresh earwax is soft and yellow. Older earwax is brown or black and may even resemble blood. Earwax is sticky and shiny. The wax may also be dry, white, and flaky. Too much earwax in the ear can be uncomfortable. If too much earwax is in the ear canal, it may act like an earplug, blocking sound entering the ear and making it harder to hear.
What causes excess earwax buildup?
There is no answer to why some people have problems with earwax buildup and others do not. Older adults tend to have more problems with earwax than younger adults do. People, especially older men, with coarse wiry hairs in the ears may have more problems. Some people may have the problem in just one ear. Hearing aid users must watch for a buildup of earwax because the ear mold of a hearing aid acts like a dam, preventing the wax from moving out of the ear canal.
Your ear can also be blocked with earwax if you use objects to clean the ear canal. An object may push earwax deeper into the ear canal and compact it. The earwax hardens and may cause a sudden loss of hearing or ear pain.
Never try to remove earwax yourself with objects such as a cotton-tipped swab, car key, bobby pin, toothpick, matchstick, or high-pressure water spray. These are unsafe tools for removing earwax and often push the earwax further down the ear canal toward the eardrum. Such objects hurt the ear canal and can make a hole in the eardrum. They may damage the small bones in the middle ear behind the eardrum. They can even damage the inner ear, causing permanent hearing loss.
How is earwax buildup treated?
There are safe ways to remove earwax if it is causing pain or loss of hearing. You can use baby oil, mineral oil, or special eardrops to soften the earwax. This may be enough to get extra wax to move slowly out of the ear.
If you are experiencing pain, hearing loss, or bleeding from your ears, seek immediate medical evaluation by your healthcare provider before attempting to remove any earwax buildup.