What is ear wax?
Ear wax is quite normal and has a very important role to play in keeping the ears clean and healthy. If it builds up too much, however, it can be uncomfortable and can cause problems.
What are the symptoms of ear wax build-up?
Signs and symptoms of ear wax build-up include:
- a full feeling in the ear
- earache and pain, or itchiness
- ringing noises (also known as tinnitus)
- hearing problems
What causes ear wax?
Ear wax is a harmless substance made by tiny glands in the ear canal. Its job is to clean and protect the ears by trapping dirt and germs so they don’t get deeper inside the ear, where they could cause an ear infection. Ear wax is also known as cerumen.
Usually, ear wax naturally moves out of the ear and takes the dirt and dead skin cells with it. Everyday movements of the jaw, like chewing and talking, help with this. You don’t usually notice the wax come out, and it normally washes off when you shower or have a bath.
The colour of ear wax ranges from light yellow to dark brown.
Some people produce more ear wax than others, but it's not a sign of bad hygiene.
You might be more likely to have a build-up of ear wax if you:
- have narrow or very hairy ear canals
- work in dirty or dusty places
- clean your ears yourself, which can push wax further into the ear
- wear headphones or a hearing aid regularly
- are older, since wax gets harder with age and won't fall out as easily
How is ear wax build-up diagnosed?
A simple ear examination will show whether you have ear wax build-up. Your doctor or practice nurse will be able to do this.
If your doctor thinks your ear problem might be more serious, they will refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist for further investigation.
How is ear wax build-up treated?
Ear wax usually comes out on its own and doesn’t need treatment. However, if you notice any build-up that’s causing symptoms, there are some simple things you can do.
The first thing to try is putting drops in your ears to help soften the wax. You could try:
- almond or olive oil drops in your ear twice a day for 2-3 days
- chemical drops from your pharmacy - these are made up of a mild and safe chemical that softens the ear wax so it falls out
Don’t try to pick the ear wax out with your fingers, cotton buds or any other object because this can push the ear wax in further and might damage your ear.
You shouldn’t try to get the wax out yourself if:
- your ears might be infected
- you have hearing loss in one ear
- you've had ear surgery or a punctured eardrum in the past
If this is the case, you should see your doctor for help.
If you have a bigger build-up of ear wax or your ear is blocked, your doctor or practice nurse might syringe out the ear wax, using body-temperature water to float it out. However, if your ear is infected or damaged, your doctor won’t be able to syringe out the ear wax until your ear has healed.
Don’t use ear candles to treat ear wax since these can cause burns and damage to your eardrums.
Can ear wax build-up be prevented?
You can’t prevent ear wax — after all, it has an important job to do. But if you do have trouble with ongoing ear wax build-up, you can try using softening drops regularly to limit it.
See your doctor if:
- your ear hasn't cleared up after 5 days
- you can't hear anything
- you have any concerns
You can also use healthdirect's online Symptom Checker to help you work out what’s happening and what to do next.
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Last reviewed: June 2020