Earwax blockage occurs when earwax (cerumen) accumulates in your ear or becomes too hard to wash away naturally. Earwax is a helpful and natural part of your body's defenses. It cleans, lubricates and protects your ear canal by trapping dirt and slowing the growth of bacteria.
If earwax blockage becomes a problem, your doctor can take simple steps to remove the wax safely.
Signs and symptoms of earwax blockage may include:
- Feeling of fullness in the affected ear
- Ringing or noises in the ear (tinnitus)
- Decreased hearing in the affected ear
When to see a doctor
If you're experiencing the signs and symptoms of earwax blockage, talk to your primary care doctor.
Signs and symptoms could indicate another condition. You may think you can deal with earwax on your own, but there's no way to know if you have excessive earwax without having someone, usually your doctor, look into your ears. Having signs and symptoms, such as earache or decreased hearing, doesn't necessarily mean you have wax buildup. It's possible you have another medical condition involving your ears that may need attention.
Wax removal is most safely done by a doctor. Your ear canal and eardrum are delicate and can be damaged easily by excess earwax. Don't try to remove earwax yourself with any device placed into your ear canal, especially if you've had ear surgery, have a hole (perforation) in your eardrum, or are having ear pain or drainage.
In most people, a small amount of earwax regularly makes its way to the opening of the ear, where it's washed away or falls out as new wax is secreted to replace it. If you secrete an excessive amount of wax or if earwax isn't cleared effectively, it may build up and block your ear canal.
Earwax blockages commonly occur when people try to clean their ears on their own by placing cotton swabs or other items in their ears. This often just pushes wax deeper into the ear, rather than removing it.
You're likely to start by seeing your primary care doctor. In some rare cases, however, you may be referred to a specialist in ear disorders (otolaryngologist).
Your doctor can determine whether you have earwax blockage by looking in your ear with a special instrument that lights and magnifies your inner ear (otoscope). Your doctor can remove excess wax using a small, curved instrument called a curet or by using suction while inspecting the ear. Your doctor can also flush out the wax using a water pick or a rubber-bulb syringe filled with warm water. You may need to repeat this irrigation procedure a few times before the excess earwax falls out.
Don't try to dig it out. Never attempt to dig out excessive or hardened earwax with available items, such as a paper clip, a cotton swab or a hairpin. You may push the wax farther into your ear and cause serious damage to the lining of your ear canal or eardrum.
Some people use ear candling, a technique that involves placing a lighted, hollow, cone-shaped candle into the ear, to try to remove earwax. The theory is that the heat from the flame will create a vacuum seal and the earwax will adhere to the candle. However, ear candling is not a recommended treatment for earwax blockage. Research has found that ear candling doesn't work, and it may result in injury, such as burns, ear canal obstructions and even perforations.