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Earwax

Topic Overview

Picture of the anatomy of the ear

Earwax is a naturally produced substance that protects the ear canal . It is a mixture of skin, sweat, hair, and debris (such as shampoo and dirt) held together with a fluid secreted by glands inside the ear canal (ceruminous glands). The ear canals are self-cleaning.

Earwax helps filter dust, keeps the ears clean, and protects the ear canal from infection. Normally, earwax is a self-draining liquid that does not cause problems. As the skin of the ear canal sheds, the wax is carried to the outer part of the ear canal and drains from the ear by itself.

Earwax ranges in color from light to dark brown or orange. In children, earwax is usually softer and lighter than the earwax produced by adults. Children produce a lot of earwax, which tapers off as they grow older.

Earwax is normally produced only in the outer half of the ear canal and will not become deeply impacted unless it is pushed in. The ear canal may become blocked (impacted) when attempts to clean the ear with cotton swabs, bobby pins, or a finger push wax deeply into the ear canal. Impacted earwax may cause some hearing loss or other problems, such as ringing in the ears (tinnitus), a full feeling in the ears, or vertigo . Poking at the wax with cotton swabs, your fingers, or other objects usually only further compacts the wax against the eardrum.

Most earwax problems can be handled with home treatment. Professional help may be needed to remove tightly packed earwax.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

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Home Treatment

Do not try to remove earwax if you have ear pain or a discharge that looks different than earwax, if you think you have a ruptured eardrum , if you have had ear surgery, or if you have tubes in your ears.

  • Soften and loosen the earwax with warm mineral oil or a mixture of hydrogen peroxide mixed with an equal amount of room-temperature water. Place 2 drops of the fluid, warmed to body temperature, in the ear twice a day for up to 5 days. Be sure to warm the fluid because cold fluid can cause pain and dizziness.
  • Once the wax is loose and soft, all that is usually needed to remove it from the ear canal is a gentle, warm shower. Direct the water into the ear, then tip your head to let the earwax drain out. Dry your ear thoroughly with a hair dryer set on low. Hold the dryer several inches (centimeters) from your ear.
  • If the warm mineral oil and shower don't work, use a nonprescription wax softener followed by gentle flushing with an ear syringe each night for a week or two. Make sure the flushing solution is body temperature. Cool or hot fluids in the ear can cause dizziness.
  • Do not use cotton swabs, bobby pins, or other objects to clean the ear.
  • Do not use a dental irrigation device, such as a Water Pik, to remove earwax. The force of the water injures the ear canal and ruptures the eardrum.
  • Do not use ear candles. They have no proven benefit in the removal of earwax and can cause serious injury.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Other symptoms develop, such as ear pain, hearing loss, ringing in the ears, dizziness, severe itching, or bad-smelling discharge from the ear.
  • Symptoms become more severe or frequent.

Prevention

Earwax is a protective substance produced in the ear canal. It usually flows out of the ear by itself without problems. In general, the best way to prevent infection or impacted earwax is to leave earwax alone.

  • You can keep earwax soft by inserting a few drops of mineral oil or hydrogen peroxide mixed with warm water into your ear.
  • Do not use cotton swabs, bobby pins, or other substances to remove earwax.
  • Try not to get water, soap, or shampoo in your ear canal when you shower. Keep soap, bubble bath, and shampoo out of the ear canal. These products can cause itching and irritation.
  • Keep your ears dry.
    • When you rinse your hair, keep your head down with your chin toward your chest or pull the outside of your ear down over the ear canal.
    • After swimming or showering, shake your head to remove water from the ear canal.
    • Gently dry your ears with the corner of a tissue or towel, or use a blow-dryer on its lowest setting. Hold the dryer several inches (centimeters) from your ear.
    • Put a few drops of rubbing alcohol or rubbing alcohol mixed with an equal amount of white vinegar into the ear after swimming or showering. Wiggle the outside of the ear to let the liquid enter the ear canal, then tilt your head and let it drain out. You can also use nonprescription drops, such as Star-Otic or Swim-Ear, to keep the inside of your ear dry.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What are your main symptoms?
    • Do you have ear pain?
    • Do you have ringing in your ears?
    • Do you have trouble hearing?
  • What home treatment methods have you tried?
  • What nonprescription earwax softeners have you used?
  • Have you ever had a ruptured eardrum?
  • Do you wear hearing aids?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised January 9, 2012

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