Provider looking in patient's ear for ear wax
Healthy Living

Mythbusting: Should You Clean Out Your Ears?

Jan 17 2019

Why you need ear wax and how to care for it

Whoever thought ear wax could be so good for you? Ear wax, also called cerumen, comes from glands in your ears. The brownish-yellow wax lubricates your ears and has antibacterial properties to protect them. Wax keeps dirt, bacteria and other debris from going into your ear canals.

Ear wax comes in many varieties. It may be soft or hard, dry or wet, and white, yellowish or black. You can tell a lot about your health by the look of your ear wax. Healthy ear wax is light brown, orange or yellow. Black ear wax may mean there’s buildup in the canal. Wet and cloudy ear wax could signal that you have an ear infection. Flaky, pale wax is just older ear wax that made it to the outside of your ears.

Most of the time, old or excess ear wax removes itself naturally. Many people may never have to clean their ears. Other people do attempt to clean their own ears. The ear wax moves out of the ear canal with your chewing motions. When wax doesn’t come out naturally, it can cause some problems.

What happens if you have too much ear wax?

The most common problem with ear wax is buildup in the ear canal. This often happens if you try to clean your own ears. If you use cotton swabs, bobby pins, napkin corners or other items to attempt to clean your ears, you’re making the problem worse by pushing the ear wax farther into your ears.

Who’s at risk?

You’re more at risk of ear wax buildup if you wear hearing aids or ear plugs that push the wax deeper into your ear canals. You may need to see an ENT — a specially trained ear, nose and throat doctor — if you have an unusual shaped, thin or excessively hairy ear canal. It might block the wax from coming out of your ear on its own. If you’re a swimmer, you may naturally produce more ear wax as your body’s way of repelling water from your ears.

Symptoms of ear wax problems

If you have impacted ear wax, or possibly an infection, you may experience some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Pain in the ear
  • Reduced hearing
  • Liquid discharge
  • Ringing (tinnitus)
  • Itchiness inside the ear
  • Foul-smelling wax discharge
  • Feelings of heaviness or fullness in the ear
  • Feelings of dizziness and being off-balance (vertigo)

There’s currently not much research available about a lack of ear wax. It’s a rare condition. If you have it, the wax forms a very hard plug in your ears. Ear wax naturally dries out a bit and becomes flakier as you age. It shouldn’t turn into a hard ball in your ears.

Diagnosis of ear wax problems

Tell your ENT if you’ve had any drainage, earaches or hearing difficulties. An ENT can look into your ear canals with a special instrument called an otoscope. The tool lights up and magnifies your inner ear so the doctor can see inside.

Treatments for ear wax issues

Never stick anything in your ear to dig out wax. Sticking items in your ear may damage your ear canal and can puncture your eardrum. Let your ENT clean the wax buildup out of your ears. It’s a delicate job to clean ears. An ENT has the right tools to gently and safely do the job.

An ENT uses a special irrigation tool or ear syringe to remove ear wax. Sometimes a small plastic, spoon-shaped tool called a curette is useful in getting the wax out. The doctor may put wax-dissolving drops or water into your ear to help move the wax out. At-home ear wax removal kits only remove surface wax. Using them often may also irritate your ear canal and eardrum. Another process called ear candling is rarely recommended due to safety issues.

The healing process

If you leave your ears untreated, you may add to the problem. You may lose more hearing or possibly get an ear infection. You may also puncture your eardrum if you try to clean out severely impacted ear wax by yourself. Bad ear wax buildup makes it tougher for an ENT to see inside your ear. If you have excessive ear wax, a yearly visit to your ENT can prevent future problems.

Make sure your ears stay healthy. If you’re experiencing ear problems or want a checkup, our physicians are here for you. Find a doctor near you today.

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