What Is Earwax Buildup and Blockage? Causes, Symptoms, Complications, Treatments And Prevention

Shivangi Karn

Earwax, also known as cerumen is a waxy and yellowish substance which is naturally made by the ears. It acts as a natural defence system for ears. Earwax lubricates, cleans and protects the ear canal from water, injury, infection or any foreign substance from entering.

Naturally, earwax finds way to the opening of the ears and gets washed out automatically. Earwax causes problems when it gets produced in large amount by the gland. With time, it gets hard and causes blockage in the ears. Let's know more about this common ear problem.

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Causes Of Earwax Buildup

The ear canal is a long tube that connects the eardrum (inner portion of the ear) to the outer ear. The earwax is built up in the lining of the ear canal. It is lubricating and waxy which enables it to capture germs, infections, water and other substances, thus protecting the eardrum from getting damaged.

Earwax is made by sebaceous and ceruminous glands present in the ear canal. It keeps moving slowly towards the outer ear and get washed away with time. Earwax automatically doesn't block the ear passage but there are several factors which are responsible for blockage of the ears. [1]

Some ears make little or just the right amount of earwax while some produce in excess amount. Earwax buildup and blockage take place when the rate at which earwax is produced does not matches with the earwax that has washed away or come out. Also, excess production of earwax does not always lead to blockage. The ear gets blocked due to improper care and cleaning of the ears.

When a person uses cotton swabs, bobby pins, fingers or any object to clean their ear canal, they actually push the earwax towards the eardrum leading to blockage. Another reason is the frequent use of earphones as they prevents earwax from coming out. The condition is common in older people and people with developmental disorders.

Symptoms Of Earwax Buildup

  • Partial hearing loss (temporary)
  • Ear pain [2]
  • Tinnitus, a perception of ringing in the ears
  • Itchiness in the ears
  • Cough
  • Dizziness
  • Vertigo, a spinning sensation
  • Feeling of ear fullness

Can Earwax Buildup Cause Infections?

Earwax doesn't always cause a severe problem but the condition needs medical attention when there are signs of infections. The symptoms include:

  • Drainage from the ears
  • Severe ear pain
  • Coughing
  • Fever
  • Bad odour from the ears
  • Persistent hearing loss [3]

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Risk Factors For Earwax Buildup

Several health conditions are also responsible for the buildup of earwax. If a person has any of the below conditions, they are at increased risk of earwax buildup and blockage.

  • External otitis, an acute ear infection [4]
  • Eczema
  • Lupus
  • Osteoma, a condition when a new bone grows on existing bone
  • Dysfunction of the earwax-making glands due to injury
  • Narrowed ear canal (by birth) [5]

Complications Of Earwax Buildup

  • If the earwax blockage is left untreated, they may cause:
  • Excessive ear irritation
  • Permanent hearing loss
  • Bleeding from the ear
  • Eardrum hole
  • Meningitis (rare)

Diagnosis Of Earwax Buildup

  • Physical examination: Here, the medical expert will ask questions related to your medical history or any injury in the past. He/She may also perform simple hearing tests.
  • Otoscope examination: It is a medical device used to look into the ear canal and eardrum. The test allows to get a proper view of wax in the ears. [6]

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Treatment Of Earwax Buildup And Blockage

The treatment is carried out depending on the symptoms, age, health and severity of the condition. Common treatment methods include:

  • OTC eardrops: To soften earwax.
  • Microsuction: This process is done by a small device. The device sucks the earwax out of the ears without any pain. It is a quick procedure.
  • Ear irrigation: Here, water along with a saline mixture is pushed into the ears with the help of a syringe. This helps flush out the wax easily. [7]

Why Ear Candling Is Not A Good Treatment Option?

Ear candling, also known as thermal-auricular therapy or ear coning is a process in which a lit hollow tube made of paraffin or fabric coated in beeswax is inserted into the ears. The suction helps pull out the wax from the canal. However, it is not considered a good treatment option by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as the process may lead to the following:

  • Punctured eardrum
  • Burns to the ear and face [8]
  • Bleeding
  • Burns inside the ear
  • Fire hazard

How To Prevent Earwax Buildup?

  • Avoid inserting fingers or any object inside the ears.
  • Avoid putting cotton swabs deep into the ear canal. It should just be used to clean the outer ear. [9]
  • Consult an expert before buying any eardrop.
  • Wear a bathing cap to prevent an excess of water from getting inside the ears.
  • Watch out for signs of infection and consult a doctor at the earliest.

Common FAQs

1. How do you remove impacted ear wax?

Several treatment methods such as eardrops, ear irrigation and micro-suction are useful to remove impacted ear wax. However, not all methods are suitable for everyone. Treatment should be done only under a doctor's supervision.

2. How can I unclog my ears at home?

Mineral oils, baby oil and glycerin are considered the best option to treat earwax blockage at home. Pour 1-2 drops of these oils into the ear by tilting the head. After a few minutes, tilt the head the other way to let the drops drain out along with earwax. Steam or warm compress can also be used.

3. Is it good to clean ear wax?

Cleaning earwax by ear swabs, fingers or objects are not considered a good way as they push the earwax more towards the eardrum causing hearing loss. Consult a medical expert for proper treatment.

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