An ear wax blockage can be a serious problem that affects hearing or results in an ear infection. It's not clear why blockages occur, but it is believed that some individuals seem to overproduce ear wax. Under normal circumstances, the ear canal "self-cleans", but there are times when the ear may become plugged up with too much wax, requiring the help of a physician to remove.
The Purpose of Ear Wax
Ear wax (cerumen) lines the ear canal, protecting the skin from water and trapping bacteria and other debris, then expelling it. Ear wax is usually beneficial and should not be removed. A small amount of ear wax may occasionally be expelled from the outer ear canal, and it can be cleaned out using a clean wash rag over your little finger.
How to Know if You Have an Ear Wax Blockage
If you have an ear wax blockage, you may have some hearing loss. It may feel like your ears are full or clogged, or they may itch. A doctor should be able to see an ear wax blockage using special instruments such as an endoscope. He or she will examine your ears to determine if there is too much wax in the ear. This examination is usually not uncomfortable.
Removing Excessive Ear Wax
While an ear wax blockage is generally not considered a medical emergency, it best to have it removed by a doctor who has experience treating disorders of the ears (such as an otolaryngologist or otologist).
You should never use a cotton swab or sharp object to try to remove wax yourself. You may push the wax down further in the ear, creating or worsening an ear wax blockage, or you may accidentally puncture the ear drum.
There are a couple of different acceptable ways to remove ear wax. One is by water irrigation. The doctor may use a syringe full of lukewarm water to flush the wax out of the ear. This should only be slightly uncomfortable. Sometimes letting a little bit of water sit in the ear prior to irrigating will loosen the wax. Some people have have complained of feeling dizzy or nauseous during the procedure. This method isn't always effective, and there is a chance that you can introduce bacteria into the ear in the process.
Some doctors may use a water jet device such as a WaterPic for irrigation, but this is not the best method due to the discomfort it can cause and the possibility of damaging the ear it introduces. Water irrigation should never be done if you have or suspect you have a ruptured ear drum, due to the risk of infection.
A doctor may instead opt to remove the wax by using a curette or a cerumen spoon. A curette looks like a tiny spoon with a long handle. With the aid of an endoscope or microscope, so that he can see what he is doing, the doctor uses the curette to scoop out excess ear wax. This is done in your doctor's office. Most of the time this is comfortable and very effective. Some sources cite this as the best method for the removal of ear wax.
There are over-the-counter ear drops, such as Ceruminex and Murine, that use hydrogen peroxide or enzymes to loosen wax so that it can be expelled. A disadvantage to using these drops is that they tend to only work well on small blockages. Like water irrigation, they cannot be used if the ear drum is ruptured. There is some data to suggest that these products help, but other that says they are no more effective than water. It is best not to use these drops frequently or to prevent blockages because the ear wax needs to remain intact in order to protect the ears.
Ear candling is supposed to remove wax from the ear, but studies have shown that this method is not only ineffective but potentially dangerous. This is generally done with a long fabric cone. The small end is inserted in the ear and then a flame is used to draw out the wax. The FDA warns against ear candling because of the risk of burns.
A vacuuming kit is another method of treating an ear wax blockage. These so called do-it-yourself kits can be expensive and have not been proven effective.
Preventing an Ear Wax Blockage
Ceridal lipolotion, a lotion you rub in to treat dry skin, can be used to prevent an ear wax blockage.
Some sources also recommend using a few drops of clean baby oil or olive oil in the ear 3 or 4 times a week. Put the drops in one ear, let the oil sit for a few minutes, then lay down on a clean towel to allow the excess wax to run out. When done, treat the other ear. This should not be done if you have or suspect that you have a ruptured ear drum. If this does not work for you, you may have to see your doctor on a regular basis to have wax removed.
American Hearing Research Foundation. Ear Wax. Accessed: March 3, 2010 from http://www.american-hearing.org/disorders/ear-wax/
MedlinePlus. Wax Blockage. Accessed: March 3, 2010 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000979.htm