Cerumen (aka Earwax) is a protective lubricant that is produced naturally by the glands in the ears. The wax functions to prevent debris and dust from getting too far down into the ear canal.
Cerumen is typically able to clear itself naturally from the ears, but in some cases, it can cause a blockage from accumulating over time. This issue is more common in those who wear earmolds or hearing aids.
Symptoms of a cerumen blockage include:
- Feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear
- Tinnitus (ringing of the ears)
- Decreased sense of hearing
Depending on the size and severity of the blockage, it may need to be removed. This can be done at home by yourself or by your audiologist.
At-home earwax removal
Physicians may choose to send patients home with an at-home earwax removal kit. These kits can also be purchased over the counter in most pharmacies.
The earwax removal kit typically contains a liquid that softens earwax and a small, rubber bulb syringe. Your physician will give instructions on how much and how often to apply the liquid to your ear canals, allowing it to sit for a short amount of time in your ears to soften up the earwax. Fizzing and bubbling sensations in the ear are not out of the ordinary when using one of these kits. After the wax has been softened, the bulb syringe can then be used to gently flush your ears with warm (not hot) water to remove the earwax. It may take several days for earwax blockages to completely clear from your ear. In some people and with certain ear conditions, there are contraindications to using these types of kits, so you should always consult with your doctor before trying an at-home earwax removal.
Earwax removal methods to avoid
A common method for removing earwax or a blockage is to use cotton swabs. However, this can worsen the situation as the swabs may push the blockage further down into the ear canal, risking further damage to the ear. It's never a good idea to insert cotton swabs or any small object into your ear canal.
Cotton swabs can also be dangerous as they can be inserted too far into the ear canal and rupture the eardrum or compact wax further.
It's a general agreement among physicians that cotton swabs should only be used on the outer portions of the ear and are not a good tool for removing earwax from inside the ear canal.
Removal at your hearing provider's office
If the earwax blockage is too significant to remove with an at-home kit, you may need the help of a hearing care professional. Your audiologist will likely use one of two methods to remove the earwax: irrigation or curettage.
Irrigation is the most common method used to remove blockages. With in-office irrigation, your hearing professional may use earwax removal medications that are stronger than those available in at-home removal kits and may use this method in conjunction with irrigation. The main ingredient in these medications is typically Carbamide peroxide, which helps to soften the wax and acts as a disinfectant.
Curettage is the lesser used method of the two. It involves the use of suction in conjunction with a curette, which is a long, curved tool that may also be used to remove cerumen from the ear canal.
The process of removing earwax doesn't have to be painful and it should bring you some relief. It's important that you see your hearing health professional if you experience any pain or discomfort as a result of earwax or a possible blockage.