Dr Caitlin: When Earwax Becomes A Problem

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rsz_dr_caitlin_oconnorDr Caitlin O’Connor of Tralee Medical Centre in St Brendan’s Park on the build-up of earwax…

Cerumen or earwax is healthy in normal amounts and serves as a self-cleaning agent with protective, lubricating, and antibacterial properties.

Its purpose is to trap dust and other small particles and prevent them from reaching, and potentially damaging the eardrum.

The absence of earwax may result in dry, itchy ears. Most of the time the ear canals are self-cleaning; that is, there is a slow and orderly migration of earwax and skin cells from the eardrum to the ear opening.

Continued below…


Old earwax is constantly being transported, assisted by chewing and jaw motion, from the ear canal to the ear opening where it usually dries, flakes, and falls out, along with any trapped dust or debris, where it can be wiped off.

The outer ear is the funnel-like part of the ear that can be seen on the side of the head, plus the ear canal (the hole which leads down to the eardrum).

The ear canal is shaped somewhat like an hourglass—narrowing part way down. The skin of the outer part of the canal has special glands that produce earwax.

Earwax is not formed in the deep part of the ear canal near the eardrum, but in the outer one-third of the ear canal. So when a patient has wax blockage against the eardrum, it is often because he has been probing the ear with such things as cotton-tipped applicators, bobby pins, or twisted napkin corners.

These objects only push the wax in deeper. Blockage, or impaction, occurs when the wax gets pushed deep within the ear canal. Earwax blockage affects about 6% of people and is the most common ear problem doctors see. Hearing aid and earplug users are also more prone to earwax blockage.

The ear is a delicate and intricate area, including the skin of the ear canal and the eardrum. Therefore, special care should be given to this part of the body. Start by discontinuing the use of cotton-tipped applicators and the habit of probing the ears.

Earwax/ Ear infection Symptoms

• Decreased hearing

• Dizziness

• Ear pain

• Plugged or fullness sensation of the ear

• Ringing in the ear

• Drainage from your ear

• Persistent  vomiting or high fever

• Sudden loss of hearing

Earwax Treatment

Over-the-counter wax softening drops or warmed olive oil may be put into the affected ear and then allowed to drain out after about five minutes. Most cases of ear wax blockage respond to home treatments used to soften wax.

The doctor may remove the earwax with a small plastic spoon called a curette, or by irrigating the ear with warmed water. Ear syringing is most effective when water, saline, or wax dissolving drops are put in the ear canal 15 to 30 minutes before treatment.

Manual removal of earwax is also effective. This is most often performed by an ENT surgeon using suction, special miniature instruments, and a microscope to magnify the ear canal. Manual removal is preferred if your ear canal is narrow, the eardrum has a perforation or tube, other methods have failed.


Earwax blockage can be prevented by avoiding the use of cotton-tipped swabs or Q-tips and other objects that push the wax deeper into the ear canal.

To clean the ears, wash the external ear with a cloth, but do not insert anything into the ear canal. If you are prone to repeated wax impaction or use hearing aids, consider seeing your GP every 6 to 12 months for a checkup and routine preventive cleaning.

Most cleaning attempts merely push the wax deeper into the ear canal, causing a blockage.

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