Earwax What's The ScoopIt's a disgusting, gooey substance that builds up in the ear, creating a nasty yellow-brown clump. Earwax is considered gross and unappealing, so everyone makes an effort to keep ears clean. Most of the time, this involves a cotton "Q-tip"-type applicator. But did you know that ear, nose and throat doctors usually advise against using this method? Using cotton swabs could put your hearing at risk.


Earwax Gets a Bad Rap

It’s not the most beautiful feature of your ears, but it enables them to hear beautiful music.

Earwax (its medical term is cerumen) has an important job. It's responsible for cleaning, protecting and lubricating the ears. Its antibacterial properties enable earwax to serve as a self-cleaning agent. You may be surprised to learn that normally, ear canals shouldn’t be cleaned at all.

Earwax forms in the outer one-third of the ear canal. Chewing and jaw motion slowly moves earwax and skin cells to the ear opening, where they dry and fall out of the ear. The earwax is never located in the deeper parts of the ear canal, such as near the eardrum. If left alone, earwax normally moves through its life cycle, causing no problems.

When you use cotton-topped applicators, napkin corners or other objects, earwax is pushed deeper into the ear. The delicate membranes of the ear canal and eardrum can be easily irritated, placing your hearing in jeopardy. Wax blockage is one of the most common causes of hearing loss. Blockage is often caused by cleaning the ear with cotton swabs and pushing the ear wax where it doesn’t belong. Most cleaning attempts merely push the wax deeper into the ear canal.


When Does Earwax Need to Be Removed?

Sometimes—whether due to cotton applicators or other devices—earwax becomes impacted. Some people may even produce an over-abundance of earwax. Symptoms of an impaction include:

  • Earaches
  • Coughing
  • Feeling that the ear is full or plugged
  • Itching
  • Hearing loss
  • Ear discharge


How to Properly Remove Ear Wax

Cleaning your ears is simple: wash the outside of the ear with a soft cloth, but do not place anything inside the ear canal. Home treatments may also help, such as over-the-counter ear drops or mineral oil. The ear may be irrigated by using a saline solution (remember to warm this to body temperature or you’ll get dizzy.)

Do NOT use ear candles! They are dangerous and can lead to injuries such as burns and complete ear canal blockage.

Of course, the most effective way to remove impacted earwax is to schedule an appointment with an ENT doctor. These physicians can vacuum or remove the earwax using microscopic visualization. Another reason an ENT doctor is a good choice is that he or she may be able to determine if there are any problems with the structures of the ear and schedule follow-up appointments if necessary.

Earwax is far from glamorous, but it is essential for your good hearing and healthy ears. You should consider visiting your ENT provider every 6 to 12 months to have a preventative cleaning. For more information, visit the patient information page of the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery.



American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery. “Earwax and Care.” 2015. Online.