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Earwax facts

Earwax serves an important purpose, but sometimes it can cause problems. Usually these problems can be treated at home.

We may not like to think about it too much, but we all need a little earwax.

Earwax traps dust and dirt, preventing it from reaching and damaging the eardrum. It also helps keep the skin of the ear canal healthy.

Usually wax clears out of the ear by moving slowly toward the outside of the ear. When it reaches the ear opening it dries, flakes and falls out.

When your ear needs a hand

However, the ear's wax removal system doesn't always work the way it's supposed to. Earwax can build up; clog the ear canal; and cause pain, hearing problems or ringing in the ear.

Wax blockage often happens because of improper ear cleaning. Cotton swabs, bobby pins and twisted napkin corners can all push wax deeper into the ear.

Most wax buildup can be treated at home, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS).

Home treatment

Earwax can be loosened with a few drops of baby or mineral oil. Then, squirt warm water into the canal with a rubber bulb syringe to flush out the loosened wax.

However, don't use any type of irrigation device designed for use in the mouth.

The AAO-HNS warns that ear candles are not an effective or safe wax removal method and using them may result in serious injury.

Professional help

The AAO-HNS recommends seeing a doctor if:

  • You can't flush out the wax at home.
  • You think your eardrum may have a tear or hole. This may be caused by an object, such as a cotton swab or hairpin, or by a hard blow to the ear. Symptoms may include hearing loss, ringing, pain and bleeding, and they may start right away. If you think your eardrum may be damaged, don't flush your ear at home. Putting fluid in your ear could cause an infection.

reviewed 1/24/2020 

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