What Is Ear Wax, Exactly?

Before diving deeper into the topic of safely removing excessive earwax, it's important to understand what earwax is. Earwax, called cerumen, is more useful than you may think.  It's a natural, completely healthy substance produced by your body for various essential functions.

It traps tiny particles of dirt, dead skin cells, and dust, filtering them out and away from the eardrum and inner ear. This is a protective function known as a self-cleaning mechanism. It also lubricates your ear canals, preventing them from becoming dry and itchy.

Sometimes, however, earwax production gets a bit out of control, exacerbated by any of a number of practices or conditions.
  • Overuse of earbuds or headphones. 
  • Improper at-home removal, particularly overuse of Q-tips or other objects. 
  • Swimming.
  • Improperly-cleaned hearing aids. 
  • Genetic factors such as hairy ears, narrow canals, osteomata, eczema, and lupus.. 
  • Ear infections.  

The Symptoms of an Earwax Blockage

Home Ear Cleaning: Advice and Safe Remedies

Generally, treating an earwax blockage at home is highly inadvisable, especially in severe cases. Especially if your ear canal is completely blocked, you shouldn't attempt to fix the problem yourself. Instead, your best bet is to consult an ear nose and throat (ENT) specialist.

That said, if the blockage is only partial and your ear canal is only slightly dirty:
  1. Run warm water or a saline solution into your ear canal. You may also consider investing in an ear irrigation kit. Do this only if your eardrums are intact and there are no signs of perforation, such as pain, pus, or bloody drainage. 
  2. Wait a few minutes for the lukewarm water to soften the earwax, then drain it through the outer ear. While doing this, you may also consider chewing and moving your jaw. 
  3. Dab the opening of your ear very gently with a clean cloth.
  4. Alternatively, you can use hydrogen peroxide or over-the-counter eardrops to clear out the wax, followed by a rinse. Do this only sparingly, as excessive use can cause inflammation.

If possible, always seek out help from a doctor and have a professional perform the earwax removal. Your ear structures are incredibly delicate, and excess wax can damage your eardrums. Even if there is no rupture, we recommend visiting your ENT, as in some instances medical intervention may be necessary. Those who wear hearing aids or swim regularly may also require additional care of their ear canal to prevent infections.

What Should I Not Do When Cleaning My Ears?

While we're on the topic, let's cover a few things you should never do when it comes to cleaning your ears. First, don't use Q-tips, bobby pins, or other, similar objects. These can exacerbate earwax buildup and even damage the ear canal.
Second, never attempt ear candling. This is a pseudoscientific fad with questionable benefits at best. If done improperly, it can cause severe and permanent damage to your ears.

Refrain from using cotton swabs altogether. Imagine a narrow pipe that you want to free from dirt with a long stick. The stick you are using is only marginally narrower but much shorter than the pipe itself. Can you see why this is not an effective strategy? The same way, when you stick a cotton swab into your ear canal, you will end up pushing the plug further down. Not only you may entirely block the exit, but you also risk injury to the eardrum. Another possible complication is when the wax hardens right at the eardrum, which may lead to drastic hearing loss.
To summarize, whenever possible, ask your doctor to remove the wax for you. And if you suspect you're suffering from an ear blockage, contact a professional. Connect Hearing offers free consultations at a Connect Hearing Center near you.