Can't hear? It could just be earwax.

But don't try to clean it out on your own

Published: April 15, 2015 10:45 AM
Don't do this!
If you have a buildup of earwax, do not use a Q-tip to try to remove it.

Q. I seem to be losing my hearing and my ears feel itchy and full. Could earwax be to blame?

A. Yes. Cerumen—commonly called earwax—is a mixture of glandular secretions, bacteria, dead skin, hair, and trapped water that acts as a barrier, protecting the external ear canal against infections, water damage, dirt, and other foreign bodies. When wax builds up too much, as a result of issues such as narrowing of the ear canal, multiple ear infections, wax overproduction, and hearing aid and earplug use, it can cause discomfort and interfere with hearing.

As we age, we’re more likely to experience an excessive accumulation because our glands produce harder, drier, less fluid cerumen that migrates more slowly out of the ear canal. While one in 20 adults suffers from excessive buildup of wax, the figure is one in three among older adults.

If you notice your hearing worsening suddenly and your ears feel itchy or full and stuffed, see a doctor, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner. He or she can examine your ears to rule out an ear infection and check for other, more serious causes of hearing loss, referring you to a specialist if necessary.

Check out a list of hearing-loss resources and view our hearing aid buying guide.

If you do have a earwax buildup, your primary care provider can clean your ears out in one of three recommended ways:

  • Irrigating the ears with saline or hydrogen peroxide, one of the most widely used methods for removing wax.
  • Using wax-softening ear drops that disperse the wax and can be followed up with irrigation if necessary.
  • Removing it manually, which the provider does while looking inside the ears. Manual removal is often quicker than the other methods, but must be done by a doctor or physician assistant who has experience with the procedure and the necessary equipment.

But don’t try to clean your ears out yourself. “The last thing you should do is clean your ears with a Q-tip,” says Elizabeth Dinces, M.D., a neurotologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City and author of a set of medical guidelines for managing cerumen.

Using a Q-tip or other cotton swab to clean out the wax can push the wax in rather than pulling it out, obstructing the ear canal, Dinces says. “The number one reason patients will have a sudden hearing loss is because they packed the wax in with a Q-tip,” Dinces says. (In fact, she says she doesn't even keep cotton swabs in her house).

And don’t use ear candles. That alternative therapy practice uses hollow cones, made of fabric soaked in beeswax or paraffin, to drain earwax and other impurities. The patient lies on his or her side while a candle is placed in the outer ear and lit.

But there is no proof that candling removes wax, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned the practice can cause burns and serious injuries to the ears.

—Roni Rabin

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