What is earwax?
Earwax is a substance made in your ear canal. It’s made of skin cells and fluids that your glands release in your ear. It helps to keep your ear canal clean, and protects it from dirt, dust, hair and water.
Why does earwax build up in your ears?
Your ear normally gets rid of earwax by itself. But sometimes, earwax builds up in your ear and starts to cause symptoms. This is called ‘impacted earwax’. There are many things that could make this more likely.
- Being under five years of age. Impacted earwax is more common in young children when their ears are still developing.
- Being older than 50. Your earwax becomes drier as you get older, and the hairs in your ear also become rougher. This makes it harder for your ears to get rid of the wax.
- Being male. Men tend to have more hair in their ears, which makes it harder for earwax to clear.
- Having naturally narrow or irregular-shaped ear canals. This can mean earwax gets blocked more easily.
- Having a skin condition, like eczema or psoriasis.
- Using cotton buds in your ears. This can push wax further in.
- Regularly wearing hearing aids or ear plugs. This can cause earwax to become impacted.
Often, there’s no particular reason for having a build-up of earwax. Your body may just naturally produce a lot of earwax, or you may be more likely to get impacted earwax.
When should earwax be removed?
You only need to have earwax removed from your ear if it’s causing symptoms, or if your ear needs to be examined. Symptoms of impacted earwax can include:
- hearing loss (the most common symptom)
- your ear feeling blocked, full or uncomfortable
- tinnitus (ringing sound in your ear)
- vertigo (feeling dizzy and sick)
How can I remove earwax at home?
You can try using olive oil or almond oil ear drops, to soften earwax and help it to come out on its own. You can also try sodium bicarbonate ear drops, but some people find this dries out their ear canal. To apply the ear drops, lie down and turn your head so the affected ear points upwards. Put the drops into your ear (if you can, ask someone else to do this for you). Then wait for five minutes or so before sitting upright. You can use the drops three to four times a day, for up to five days.
Never try to remove earwax yourself using cotton buds or other objects. This can just push the wax deeper into your canal. It can also damage your ear canal and eardrum.
Don’t use ear candles to try to remove earwax. These are long tubes of fabric (cloth) soaked in beeswax that you place in your ear. Lighting the other end of the fabric candle is meant to draw any wax out of your ear. But there’s no evidence that ear candles work. They can be very dangerous and cause serious injury.
How does professional earwax removal work?
If ear drops don’t help and you’re still getting symptoms, speak with your GP. Sometimes, they may be able to offer treatments for earwax removal. Or they may refer you to a specialist ear care service for treatment.
Methods of earwax removal include the following.
- Ear irrigation. This means flushing out the wax with water, using an electronic device.
- Microsuction. This involves using a vacuum device to suck the wax out, under a microscope.
- Manual removal. This is where the wax is removed using a probe.
Your GP can talk to you about the most appropriate method of wax removal for you.