Earwax, medically referred to as cerumen, is a brown or yellowish substance secreted in the ear canal. It is a naturally produced substance that prevents dust and foreign particles and microorganisms from entering the ears. It also serves to protect the skin of the ear canal from irritation due to moisture, and assists in cleaning and lubrication.
Under normal circumstances, any excess wax would find its way out of the ear canal, dry up and eventually fall off. There are instances, however, where excess ear wax builds up in the ear canal, causing a blockage – also known as impacted earwax.
Impacted earwax can occur in the form of a physical blockage or when your glands occur when the earwax gets pushed deep into the ear canal. This most often happens when you use a cotton stick or rolled napkin to clean your ear, unintentionally forcing the excess ear wax further in.
Earwax can also build up naturally due to the shape and structure of the ear canal that makes it hard for excess earwax to find its way out. Other possible causes of impacted earwax include infectious disease (e.g. swimmer’s ear), skin disease (e.g. eczema), and autoimmune disease (e.g. lupus). These conditions either cause earwax to be produced at a rate much faster than it can be discharged, or cause a physical blockage within the ear canal.
The symptoms of impacted earwax often present slowly and can be mistaken for other health conditions or medical issues. Always consult your healthcare provider if you experience any of the following symptoms:
If you begin experiencing a fever, and drainage and/or odour from the ear, it might point to a more serious case of impacted earwax.
Besides blockage, impacted earwax can cause a sharp pain in the ear.
Some people tend to collect more earwax than others due to existing medical conditions that either promote the production of earwax or physical features that make it hard for earwax to exit the ears.
Physical features include hairy ear canals, narrow ear canals or ear canals that are not fully formed. Medical conditions such as osteomas – benign bony growths in the outer part of the ear canal, skin conditions, and autoimmune diseases like lupus or Sjogren’s syndrome also increase the risk of earwax impaction.
Age is also a risk factor. Earwax impaction occurs more commonly in older adults because the earwax tends to become drier and harder as you get older. Those who rely on hearing aids or ear plugs are also more likely to get impacted earwax.
For reasons not known, people with learning difficulties often have earwax problems.
Impacted earwax is diagnosed typically by analysing the symptoms and carrying out a physical examination by using an otoscope to look into your ear for any wax buildup. Hearing tests may also be ordered.
There are home remedies you can apply to address the earwax buildup or you may approach your healthcare provider.
At home, you can try putting a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, or over-the-counter wax softening drops into the affected canal twice a day, to soften the earwax. Then, lie on one side to allow the oil to flow out. That may be enough to get the wax out. This should be followed by gently flushing the ear with warm water using a bulb-type syringe.
If home remedies do not work, you should consult your doctor. Your doctor may use one or a combination of the following methods:
Your doctor may also advise which over-the-counter kits would work for you, if you prefer a home remedy.
Most people do well after earwax removal. To prevent earwax from building up, it is advisable to under cleaning once a year.
However, ear candling is not recommended. Ear candling involves inserting a hollow cotton or linen tube into the ear, lighting the end of it for around 15 minutes before pulling it out. Research has shown that ear candling does nothing to remove earwax and may even result in injury like ear canal obstruction or perforation, if not administered carefully.
Earwax buildup can be prevented to a certain degree. For example, you are encouraged to avoid using cotton buds or any instruction to remove your earwax, in case you unintentionally lodge the earwax deeper into your canal. It is also advisable to dry your ears after a swim or shower.