What You Need to Know About Earwax

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Earwax, also called cerumen, is a substance made up of dead skin, oil, bacteria, trapped water, and hair. Wax protects the ear from water, dirt, insects, fungi, bacteria, and harmful objects. How much earwax is made, the color, and the consistency of it will vary from person to person.

This article explores the purpose of earwax, the different types, as well as the causes and symptoms of earwax buildup. It will also look at earwax removal and when to reach out to a medical professional.

A male doctor examining a woman's ear
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Types of Earwax

Earwax repels water and is a protective substance. Based on your genetics, you may make one of two different types of earwax:

  • Wet: Earwax with a higher proportion of lipids, which are a mix of hormones, fats, oils, and wax; seen in White and African populations
  • Dry: Earwax with a lower proportion of lipids; found in East Asian populations

Function

Earwax protects the part of the ear you can see, which is known as the outer ear canal. Earwax prevents water from becoming trapped inside of the ear. This is important because water buildup in the ear can lead to infections.

Earwax also has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. Studies show that a healthy amount of earwax may decrease your risk for ear infections like otitis externa. Despite its benefits, too much earwax can lead to problems.

What Causes Excessive Earwax?

Typically the body removes earwax and dead skin through the action of chewing or talking. Jaw movement causes the earwax to move from your inner ear towards your outer ear.

About 12 million people get treated for excess earwax every year in the United States. Children and older adults are most at risk for earwax blockage, known as impaction. Reasons for earwax buildup include:

  • Trapped earwax and dead skin: Can be the result of the normal aging process; can also be caused by harmful earwax removal methods
  • Narrow ear shape: Can be affected by the shape of an individual's ear, scar tissue from multiple and/or severe ear infections, or increased amounts of hair in the ear canal
  • Overproduction: Can be the result of trauma, trapped water, and other unknown causes

Excess Earwax Symptoms

Earwax blockage can cause the following symptoms:

Associated Conditions

A buildup of earwax can be associated with the following conditions:

  • Ceruminosis: Ear is unable to self clean because of too much earwax buildup in the outer ear
  • Tinnitus: Ringing in the ears that may be caused by earwax buildup

Removing Excess Earwax

There are several ways to remove excess earwax. However, if you have any uncomfortable or painful symptoms, you should contact a healthcare provider. If you think your child has excess earwax, be sure to speak with their pediatrician instead of trying to remove it yourself.

Common methods for home earwax removal can actually damage your ears or push the earwax deeper into your ear.

Methods to avoid include:

  • Ear candling, which uses special candles to pull wax out of your ear
  • Cotton swabs or inserting other objects into your ear
  • Solutions that break down earwax, known as cerumenolytics, which can be harmful if your eardrum is injured or you have an ear infection

Earwax should only be removed if you have symptoms or discomfort. The three recommended methods of earwax removal by a trained professional include:

  • Cerumenolytic agents
  • Irrigation, which uses a liquid to remove earwax
  • Manual removal done by an ear, nose, and throat doctor, as it can reduce the risk of ear damage

Risks of Removal

Removal of earwax, also known as earwax extraction, by a trained professional is relatively safe. However, rare complications may occur including:

  • Allergic reactions (if cerumenolytic agents are used)
  • Outer ear canal infection
  • Earache
  • Temporary hearing loss
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Ruptured eardrum
  • Ringing in the ear
  • Ear pain
  • Bleeding (usually mild)
  • A deep cut

Preventing Accumulation

The following measures may help prevent the buildup of earwax. However, you should speak with your healthcare provider before trying them, especially if you have a history of ear problems:

  • Dip a cotton ball in mineral oil and place it in the outer ear canal for 10 to 20 minutes per week.
  • Avoid wearing earplugs or hearing aids for eight or more hours at night.
  • If you tend to have frequent earwax build up, consider having a routine ear cleaning done by a healthcare professional every six to 12 months.

Summary

Earwax is a protective substance that most people make. Excessive earwax may be caused by the shape of an individual's ear, ear trauma, scar tissue, water buildup, improper removal methods, and high amounts of ear hair. Older individuals are also more likely to have higher amounts of earwax.

Symptoms of excess earwax may include a cough, hearing loss, ear pain, and ear itchiness or a plugged feeling. To remove earwax impaction, it's best to seek out a trained professional. They may use irrigation, cerumenolytic agents, or manual extraction to remove earwax safely.

A Word From Verywell

Even though earwax is meant to protect you, a buildup of it can cause some intense discomfort, and at times even pain. Be sure to take care of your earwax in a safe and gentle way, and don't hesitate to touch base with your doctor for extra help.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What happens if I don’t remove excess earwax?

    Earwax buildup discomfort may become worse if you don’t have the impacted wax removed. You may have hearing loss, more severe earaches, an ongoing cough, and an increased risk of infection.

  • Can I remove earwax myself at home?

    You can use over-the-counter products to soften earwax. Mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, Debrox (a hydrogen peroxide solution), and saline solution can be used. Add a few drops into your ear. Once the wax is softened, use a syringe to wash out the solution and the softened wax with water. 

  • Why do I have so much earwax?

    How much and what type of earwax you have is based on many factors. You may be more likely to make excess earwax if you use hearing aids or ear plugs regularly, have skin conditions, or try to clean your ears with cotton swabs.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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