Cerumen, more commonly known as earwax, is produced in the outer third of the ear canal. It is healthy in normal amounts and acts as a self-cleansing agent for the ear canal skin. Wax protects the ear by trapping dust, bacteria, and other microorganisms and foreign particles and preventing them from entering the ear. Wax usually makes its way to the opening of the ear, where it falls out. However, some people produce hard or excessive wax which blocks the ear canal.
The most common causes of wax blockage is overproduction coupled with attempts at unsuccessful removal. Using cotton swabs, such as Q-tips, can push wax deeper into your ear if you have small canals. In addition, frequent use of earphones, earplugs or hearing aids prevent earwax from coming out of the canals on its own.
Symptoms of wax blockage may include the following:
The consistency of the wax determines the method used to remove it. Most of the time wax blockage can be treated at home. Baby oil, glycerin, or mineral oil can be used to soften the wax so it can drain on its own. Hydrogen peroxide dissolves wax, but if you have a lot of wax it may make your ear feel more full. Most people use Q-tips to clear the wax from the outermost canal, and when done appropriately, can be helpful. Never use Q-tips in children’s ears. Avoid using Q tips and softening ear drops together, however, as this combination can result in more severe wax impaction and ear infections.
If you wear hearing aids, it is important to have your wax removed consistently and completely by a doctor. Very tiny amounts of wax can affect the fit of the aid. Wax softeners should also be avoided because they can damage the aid.
Extremely impacted or hardened wax may require that the doctor remove it with specialized instruments and magnification, including curettes or suction.