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Is earwax making your hearing wane?

How best to get it out

Published: February 25, 2014 01:15 PM

Don't do this
Using a cotton-tipped swab can push ear wax farther into the ear canal.

A surprisingly common source of hearing trouble is a buildup of earwax (cerumen). That normal combination of glandular secretions and dead skin in the outer third of your ear canal ordinarily gets ferried out by migrating skin cells and washes away when you bathe.

It’s important stuff: Earwax blocks foreign bodies and protects the delicate eardrum from injury. But some people make excessive wax that can occlude the ear canal and impair hearing. And hearing aids can interrupt the natural conveyer belt that removes cerumen, leading to buildup (and damage to the device). In those situations, wax removal is called for.

How best to get it out? Don’t use a cotton-tipped swab, cautions Peter Roland, M.D., professor of otolaryngology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. It can push in the wax farther.

Instead, turn your head so that the affected ear is facing upward, then gently pour a small amount of hydrogen peroxide into the ear canal (provided your eardrum is intact). “Let it sit for 5 minutes, then turn the ear downward to drain it out,” Roland said. You can buy over-the-counter earwax softeners that also work, but peroxide is cheaper and just as effective, he says. If wax still remains, you can have it manually suctioned out by your doctor with the help of an otoscope—that illuminated conical device doctors have poked into your ear since you were a kid.

—Nancy Metcalf

Editor's Note:

This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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