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Q: I believe earwax is building up in my ears. What should I do?

A: Blockage of the ear canal by excess earwax is a common problem and is usually completely preventable. Earwax is actually a secretion called cerumen that is released by glands beneath the skin in the ear canal and combines with dead skin cells to create the waxy substance. Together with small hairs within the canal, earwax helps to prevent dirt and foreign objects from reaching the eardrum where it can cause damage.

Your body continuously replaces the supply of cerumen within your ear, and as it does, older earwax hardens as it travels to the outside of your ear where it usually falls away. It can become compacted within the canal, however, when people attempt to clean their ears using cotton swabs. This often results in cerumen being pushed further into the canal unintentionally, where it builds up, hardens and causes an obstruction. Other risk factors for earwax blockage include use of hearing aids/earplugs, frequent swimming, narrow ear canals, excess hair in the ear and old age.

Diminished hearing, loss of balance, earaches and persistent ringing in the affected ear may be experienced by someone with an earwax blockage. These symptoms may also be indicators for more severe medical conditions, so it's important for patients to seek the help of a physician, who will perform an examination to determine the cause.

If an earwax obstruction is found, your doctor will remove the blockage using irrigation, drops or instruments specifically designed for this purpose. Never try to remove an obstruction yourself. If you accidentally apply too much pressure to the compacted cerumen, you may wind up causing permanent damage to your eardrum.

For most people, the best way to keep the ears clean is by wiping the outside of the ear with a damp cloth. Alternatively, occasional use of mineral oil or hydrogen peroxide as ear drops in small amounts is also a safe and effective way to prevent earwax from causing a problematic blockage.

— Douglas Liening, M.D., Associates in ENT — Head & Neck Surgery; Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society member

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