Earwax, or cerumen, is a natural substance produced by the cerumen glands in the outer ear canal.

Why does the body produce earwax?

In normal amounts, cerumen has protective, lubricating and antibacterial properties. Without earwax, the ears become dry and itchy. Healthy ears clean themselves as earwax, dead skin cells and trapped dirt slowly migrate from the eardrum out toward the ear opening. The wax then dries, flakes and falls out. This migration is assisted by chewing and other jaw movements.

What are the symptoms of earwax?

For most people, the ear canals never have to be cleaned. If you experience any of the following symptoms, see your doctor for an ear examination:

  • Ear pain
  • Ear fullness
  • Hearing loss
  • Tinnitus or noises in the ear
  • Itching, odor or discharge

Don’t use Q-tips!

If you sense a blockage of your ear canal, you may be tempted to probe your ear with a cotton-tipped swab (such as a Q-tip®), a bobby pin or a twisted napkin corner. Don’t do it!  Cleaning your ears in this way is like using a ramrod to pack gunpowder into a musket – you just push the wax in deeper. Moreover, you can perforate your eardrum or break the delicate bones in your middle ear.

Don’t use ear candles!

Ear candles do nothing to remove wax from the ear.  Any brown debris that accumulates is just a collection of impurities from the burning candle.  Many people have been seriously burned by the dripping wax or open flame next to their hair.

How should I clean my ears?

In most cases, you can simply wash the outer ear canal with a soft cloth.  Do not insert anything into the ear canal.  If the wax is particularly hard and dry, you can soften it with commercially available hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide.  Some people with dry, flaky ears find mineral oil or baby oil to be helpful.

Do not be afraid of getting water in your ears, unless you have had surgery or a perforation in your eardrum.  Irrigation is honestly the safest way to clean the ears at home.  Try soaking the ear for 15 minutes with mineral oil or olive oil to soften the wax, then wash your ear with soap and water.  You may flush the wax out with warm water using a bulb syringe designed for this purpose, or you may turn your ear up toward the shower and pull back on the external ear until you can hear the water rushing into your ear canal.  The water should be comfortably warm.  Hot or cold water irrigation will make you dizzy. Do not irrigate your ears if you have a history of any ear surgery including tubes or if you have a hole in the eardrum.

When should I see a specialist?

If you need further help, an ENT specialist (otolaryngologist) can use a microscope and miniature instruments to clean and examine your ears. This may be necessary if you have a narrow ear canal, a history of ear surgery or eardrum perforation, ear tubes, skin problems affecting the ear canal, diabetes, a weakened immune system, or if other methods have been unsuccessful.  The doctor can also perform diagnostic testing to rule out other causes of hearing loss. If you are prone to cerumen impaction, or use hearing aids, consider seeing your doctor every six to 12 months for routine cleanings.

If your ear becomes painful, begins to drain, or develops an odor you may have otitis externa or swimmer’s ear.  Call your physician for an appointment.

© 2020 Richmond ENT. Mike Armstrong MD, Michaela Bailey, Bill Wilkes MD.