Frequent use of earbuds, earplugs or hearing aids can contribute to annoying earwax buildups. But that doesn't mean earwax needs to be removed.
"Earwax serves a very important purpose, protecting the ear from any dirt or debris, which may try to make its way inside," says Mayo Clinic audiologist Katie E. Dease, Au.D. "Avoid digging or putting any type of tool, camera, bobby pin or key into the ear as it will likely cause damage."
Attempting to remove earwax with cotton swabs or other items can push earwax farther into the ear, increasing the risk of blockage. Putting items in your ear also can damage the paper-thin eardrum.
What is earwax blockage?
Most people will never have to remove their earwax. The ear usually handles the job itself. When you move your jaw, the old earwax makes its way out of your ear. When it reaches the surface, it becomes flaky and falls out.
Earwax can build up when a person's ear makes too much, or the earwax gets hard and doesn't slide out easily. Earwax also may build up if the ear canal is blocked with items like hearing aids, earplugs and earbuds for several hours a day.
Earwax blockage might have no symptoms, or it might cause:
- Ear pain, also called earache.
- A full feeling in the ear.
- Ringing or noises in the ear.
- Hearing loss.
- Balance issues.
- Odor or discharge in the ear.
- Ear infection.
See your primary care provider if you have any of these symptoms for several days and if you feel dizzy or have hearing loss. Your provider can make sure your eardrum is intact and that your ears are clean.
"In my experience, most people overestimate the amount of earwax they have and overuse home remedies," Dr. Dease says. "This can lead to itching or irritation."
Cleaning your ears at home
If you do have earwax blockage, your provider will recommend methods for removing it.
If your health care provider says your ears are healthy enough for home treatment, a couple of options are available. Store-bought syringe or suction earwax removal systems are usually safe and effective.
Mayo Clinic experts do not recommend earwax candling systems. They can lead to injuries and haven't shown to be effective. Dr. Dease also recommends caution with new camera tools that connect to a smartphone.
"While it can be fun to see inside your ear, these cameras can distort depth perception," she says. "That means the tools intended to help remove wax can instead cause damage or trauma such as perforations or tears in the skin or eardrum."
A safer way to remove earwax is to soften it and rinse it out without special equipment. Follow these steps:
- Use hydrogen peroxide or mineral oil to soften earwax. Add a couple of drops at a time and lie on your opposite side, so the liquid can work its way into the affected ear. Another option is to soak a cotton ball in the liquid and place in the ear. If you're prone to itchy ears, use mineral oil instead of hydrogen peroxide.
- Wait a day or two to let the earwax soften. Then rinse your ear under a showerhead or by squirting lukewarm water into your ear. Let the water sit for a moment before tipping your ear down to let it drain out.
- Gently dry your outer ear with a soft cloth.
You might need to repeat the process to clear excess wax. If symptoms don't improve, see your provider. Health care providers have special tools and lights to safely remove excess earwax.
How to prevent earwax blockages
Reduce earwax buildup with this advice, recommended by Mayo Clinic experts:
- Reduce the amount of time you use in-ear devices. Remove earbuds, earplugs or hearing aids when you're not using them. When possible, try over-the-ear devices or put your phone on speaker.
- Keep your devices clean. Alcohol wipes are an effective way to keep in-ear devices clean. Wipe down your devices weekly — or more often if you use them in hot weather or during sweaty workouts. Store them in cases or zip-top bags when you're not using them.
- Keep your ears and hair clean. Rinse ears in the shower or use a soft washcloth to wipe away any dirt, bacteria or other debris. But don't attempt to push the cloth into your ear canal.