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Earwax blockage and buildup: Causes & treatment

Last update on Feb, 09, 2024

Earwax serves an essential function in protecting and cleaning our ears. However, excessive earwax can sometimes cause blockages, leading to pain, ringing in the ears (tinnitus) and even hearing loss. Knowing how to recognize and resolve earwax blockages can help you find relief quickly.

Where does earwax come from?

Earwax, or cerumen, is a waxy substance produced by the glands in your ear canal. The body naturally makes earwax to coat, protect and lubricate the lining of the ear canal. Earwax can also trap dust and bacteria, preventing small objects from entering and damaging the ear. Without earwax, our sensitive ear canals would be vulnerable to harmful germs, dust and objects that could cause infections or damage. 

What is earwax blockage?

Even though earwax is naturally occurring and crucial to the health of our ears, there’s a delicate balance between the right amount and too much. When too much earwax buildup is in the ear canal, you may experience earwax blockage, also known as cerumen impaction.

What causes earwax blockage?

Earwax is naturally designed to make its way to the opening of your ear and be washed away or fall out on its own. When this doesn’t happen as it should, you get earwax buildup. 

But what causes earwax buildup? Some people naturally produce more earwax than the body can efficiently get rid of, which can lead to buildup. In many cases, earwax buildup is due to external factors, such as wearing earplugs, earbuds or hearing aids that are placed inside the ear canal and can disrupt the movement of earwax.

Earwax blockage can also happen if you use Q-tips to get earwax out on your own. Instead of removing wax, you’re more likely to push it deeper into the ear canal, causing it to become impacted. 

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What are side effects of earwax blockage?

Earwax blockage is one of the most common causes of conductive hearing loss—the term for hearing loss caused by issues that prevent sound from being delivered to and through the ear canal, ear drum or middle ear. Other earwax blockage side effects include:

Who is most likely to develop impacted earwax?

You may be more likely to develop impacted earwax if;

  • You have narrow ear canals
  • You have a lot of ear hair, dry or hard earwax
  • Your body naturally produces an excess of earwax

What else causes impacted earwax? Having foreign objects in the ear, such as hearing aids or headphones, can stimulate wax production and keep wax from naturally falling out on its own, potentially leading to impacted earwax. 

Do hearing aid wearers get blocked earwax more?

Hearing aid wearers are often at higher risk of developing impacted earwax because the devices prevent wax from falling out naturally.  If you wear hearing aids and experience issues such as feedback, poor fit or reduced effectiveness, earwax may be the culprit.

Excessive earwax not only affects your ears but can damage your devices. In fact, excessive earwax is one of the most common causes of hearing aid malfunction. If you notice a buildup of earwax in your hearing aids, you might need to clean your devices more often. Follow these steps to clean your hearing aids and keep them wax-free: 

  • Use a special brush from your hearing care professional to clear away wax on the earpiece and a pick or multi-tool to remove the particles inside.
  • Wipe down the outside of your devices with a soft, dry cloth.
  • Store your devices in a drying chamber overnight.
  • Regularly check and change your hearing aid wax filters.

If you want more information on what dissolves earwax from hearing aids or how to properly care for your hearing aids at home, talk to your hearing care professional at your local Miracle-Ear store.

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How much earwax is too much?

The amount of earwax your body produces is unique to you. There is no specific amount that is considered “too much,” but some people do produce more earwax than the body needs to coat and protect the ear canal.

If the amount of earwax you produce causes frequent impaction or you start to notice symptoms of impacted earwax, see your healthcare provider to discuss removal techniques. 

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How to remove earwax blockage

Removing earwax blockage can offer relief, but if done incorrectly, it may do more harm than good. There are medical and natural methods to remove earwax blockage, but it’s important to consult with your doctor or hearing care professional before attempting any removal process

Learning how to remove earwax naturally can save you a trip to your doctor’s office. To remove earwax, try softening or irrigation techniques designed to encourage natural drainage of impacted earwax. Here’s how to remove earwax blockages fast at home:

  1. Flush the affected ear out by filling a syringe with saline or sterile water (never tap water) at body temperature
  2. slowly bathe the ear canal in the solution
  3. tilt your head onto a towel to allow the solution and wax to drain

If the wax is hard, you may need a softening agent. You can start with a few drops of baby oil, mineral oil, glycerin or hydrogen peroxide to soften the wax. Or you may opt for over-the-counter earwax removal drops. These treatments can be effective, but always consult your doctor or hearing care provider before attempting any home remedies, especially if you wear hearing aids.

Warning: If you have diabetes, a weakened immune system, ear tubes or a hole in the ear drum, do not use irrigation kits. If water gets into the middle ear, it can cause a serious infection.

If home remedies aren’t working, or you’re experiencing ear pain, bleeding or drainage, you should visit a doctor. They will talk you through how to remove earwax blockages, and they may try a number of methods to remove them—including irrigation to dislodge and flush out the blockage or suction to pull out particularly stubborn blockages. Your provider may also use a small, curved tool called a curet to manually remove the impacted wax.  

Don’t try to dig earwax out yourself using home implements like a cotton swab, paperclip or hairpin. These methods are ineffective, as you typically push the earwax deeper into the ear canal, making the impaction worse. They can also be dangerous. You may push too far and damage your eardrum.

If you’re curious about how to remove earwax without Q-tips, you’re already on the right track because they really should not be used for the task. Instead, consult with your healthcare provider for safer at-home removal options. 

How can I prevent earwax buildup?

Learning how to prevent wax buildup in ears can save you from experiencing painful impaction.

To start, avoid cleaning your ears with foreign objects like cotton swabs. If you can, limit the use of earbuds or earplugs, as any foreign object can trigger increased earwax production. If you rely on hearing aids, be sure to keep your ears as clean and dry as possible and follow the advice of your hearing care provider on how to clean and care for your device.

It’s also important to have regular checkups with your doctor or hearing care provider to make sure earwax is not building up and causing hearing loss to worsen.  

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When should I see my healthcare provider?

While there’s no such thing as an earwax doctor, the following professionals can help you with earwax problems or direct you to a specialist who can:

  • Licensed practical nurse (LPN)
  • Registered nurse (RN)
  • Otolaryngologist (ENT)
  • Audiologist
  • Miracle-Ear hearing care professional (HCP)

See a medical professional right away if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Ear pain
  • Sudden hearing loss
  • Dizziness
  • Cough
  • Itchiness
  • Odor or drainage from the ear
  • Bleeding from the ear

Taking care of your ear health is important, but doing it in the right way is crucial. Don’t let problems go untreated, and keep up a regular schedule of annual hearing tests to stay on top of your hearing health for the long term.

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