Earwax is a curious thing. Why do we have it? Do we need it? What’s its purpose? You may have wondered these things or if you haven’t, most any 9 year-old boy certainly has. Earwax is medically referred to as cerumen. It is produced by glands in the outer ear canal and its purpose is to trap dust and other small particles to keep them from travelling toward the eardrum and potentially causing irritation or damage. Normally, the wax dries up and falls out of the ear on its own, along with any trapped dust or debris. If it doesn’t, it can gradually build up over time and become impacted in the ear canal. It may then need to be removed by an audiologist or ear specialist.
A complete blockage, or impaction of the ear canal by earwax can happen to anyone. The most common cause is from wax getting pushed deep within the ear canal by a q-tip or other object placed in the ear canal, such as bobby pins or car keys. Often, these objects push the earwax deeper into the ear canal. Those who wear hearing aids or earplugs are also more prone to having a complete blockage.
Earwax blockage can be associated with a number of symptoms that can be somewhat disturbing to the person experiencing them because often, the symptoms are sudden and generally do not accompany any other incident. The most common symptoms are decreased hearing, dizziness, pain in the ear and/or tinnitus (ringing in the ear).
The easiest way to handle an earwax blockage is to try removing the wax yourself at home. The only time a “home remedy” shouldn’t be tried is if you have a hole in your eardrum or if an ear, nose and throat physician has placed a pressure equalization tube (PE tube) in the eardrum. The most common home remedy is an over-the-counter wax softener. The softener consists of a liquid called carbamide peroxide which will gradually soften the wax and help it move out of the ear canal. Another option is warmed mineral oil. When placed in the ear canal and allowed to sit, the earwax will soften, making it easier to remove. Or, it will make its way out on its own.
One of the “home remedies” that isn’t suggested is ear candling. Ear candles are hollow cones made of paraffin and beeswax. The tapered end is placed inside the ear canal and the other end is then set on fire. In theory, as the flame burns, a vacuum is created. The vacuum is meant to draw the wax out of the ear. There is no indication that the use of ear candles is successful in removing ear wax, but there is ample evidence that using this sort of home remedy can cause serious damage to your ear or ear canal or both.
When to Seek Medical Treatment
If you have tried a home remedy and haven’t seen a change in your symptoms, it may be time to seek medical treatment. Or, if you just don’t want to mess with the home remedies at all, a simple way to handle an earwax impaction is to see an audiologist or medical doctor. Either professional will be able to easily remove the wax for you. They may use a small plastic spoon called a curette, or remove the wax by irrigating the ear with warm water.
Preventing Earwax Impaction
Earwax impaction can be prevented by avoiding ear swabs or Q-tips and other objects that push the wax deeper into the ear canal. Use of mineral oil or olive oil in the ear canal regularly can also help to alleviate the possibility of earwax becoming lodged in the ear canal. If earwax impaction seems to be an ongoing problem or if you wear hearing aids, having a routine examination of the ear canal at least every six months is a good idea. Your audiologist or medical doctor can then keep a close eye on your earwax production and make sure that an impaction doesn’t occur in the future.
If you’re concerned about wax impaction, call our office. We’d be glad to help.