Earwax, also known as cerumen, is the waxy substance produced by the glands within the lining of the ear canal. Earwax protects the skin within the ear canal, helps the ear stay clean and lubricated and protects it from bacteria, debris and water. Normally, older cerumen dries up and falls out of the ear taking with it any trapped particles. The problems arise when something prevents the earwax from falling out of the ear, such as a blockage or impaction.
The most common cause of impacted earwax is incorrect cleaning of the ear, usually done with a cotton swab. Instead of cleaning out the cerumen, the cerumen is just pushed further into the ear canal. Hearing aids and earplugs can also cause the cerumen to be pushed further into the ear canal. If you have a small or oddly shaped ear canal this can also make it difficult for the earwax to fall out of the ear on its own. A growth or an injury to the ear canal can also create a blockage.
Ear pain, a decrease in hearing, a sensation of fullness in the ear or dizziness can all be symptoms of impacted earwax. Since these symptoms can also be a sign of multiple conditions, it is important to visit your doctor to confirm the cause.
Once at the doctor’s office, your doctor will look into your ear with a lighted instrument called an otoscope in order to determine the best method for removing the impacted earwax. The irrigation method is the easiest and most popular method. It involves softening the cerumen with drops and then using a syringe-like tool to push water into the ear canal. The water is able to flush out all the impacted earwax. The suction method, which should only be performed by an audiologist or ENT doctor, involves a low pressure suction device and a video otoscope. The third method of removal is use of a curette, a small cured instrument. After looking into your ear, the curette is inserted and used to scrape out the cerumen.
There are multiple home remedies, many of which are recommended by your doctor after the earwax has been removed. Earwax can be softened by using over-the-counter drops, hydrogen peroxide or mineral oil. A bulb can be used to push warm water into the ear, to help remove the wax. This may need to be repeated several times.