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Ear wax

5-minute read

Key facts

  • Ear wax is normal, and most people have it, but it can cause discomfort when it builds up in your ear.
  • Symptoms of ear wax build-up include earache, ringing noises and hearing problems.
  • Ear wax is made by ear canal glands to protect you from water or infection.
  • Doctors can see if you have ear wax build-up by simply checking your ear canal.
  • Do not stick anything into your ear, see a doctor if your ears are hurting.

What is ear wax?

Ear wax is wax that is and made by tiny glands in your ear canal. Ear wax is an important part of a normal functioning ear, and plays an important role in keeping your ears clean and healthy. The ear wax that you see is a mix of wax, skin cells and dirt.

Ear wax is also known as cerumen.

Ear wax build-up is not a medical condition unless it causes symptoms. If it builds up too much it can be uncomfortable and on rare occasions, can cause temporary hearing loss.

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 — usually if there is an infection
  • ringing noises (also known as tinnitus)
  • hearing problems
  • dizziness

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes ear wax build-up?

Ear wax builds up when the self-cleaning process in your ear is disrupted. If wax builds up, it can become impacted (hard).

Some people are born with narrow ear canals or their ear canal may have an abnormal shape, which can get in the way of the ear's natural self-cleaning process.

Using foreign objects in the ear (such as cotton tips, hearing aids and ear plugs) can also limit the self-cleaning process, and encourage ear wax build-up over time.

Who is at risk of having a build-up of ear wax?

Some people naturally produce more ear wax than others — having a build-up of ear wax is not a sign of poor 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
  • try and clean your ears yourself with cotton buds, which can push wax down into the ear
  • wear earplugs or a hearing aid regularly
  • are older, since wax gets harder with age and won't fall out as easily

When should I see a doctor?

You should see a doctor if you have a build-up of ear wax and:

  • you think your ears might be infected
  • you have hearing loss in one or both ears
  • you've had ear surgery or an injured eardrum in the past
  • your ear hasn't cleared up after 5 days

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is ear wax build-up diagnosed?

A simple ear examination by your doctor or practice nurse will let you know whether you have ear wax build-up.

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 to help soften the wax:

  • put olive oil drops in your ear twice a day for 2 to 3 days
  • ask your pharmacist for wax-softening drops — these are made up of a mild and safe solution that softens the ear wax, so it falls out more easily

Do not:

  • 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
  • use ear candles to treat ear wax, since these can cause burns and damage to your eardrums

If you have a bigger build-up of ear wax or your ear is blocked, your doctor or practice nurse might use a syringe to remove the ear wax, using body-temperature water to float it out. If your ear is infected or injured, your doctor won't be able to syringe out the wax until your ear has healed.

Your doctor may also give you a referral to a specialist doctor or an ear, nose and throat (ENT) clinic if the wax is too hard, and they are unable to remove the ear wax with a syringe.

Can ear wax build-up be prevented?

You can't prevent ear wax — after all, it has an important job to do. There are some ways to stop build up:

  • Do not clean your ear canals with your fingertips, cotton bud or other objects.
  • Try to clean the outer part of your ear only.
  • If you have trouble with ongoing ear wax build-up, you can try using softening drops regularly to limit it.

Resources and support

If you feel like you have ear wax build-up that is causing you hearing loss, pain or discomfort speak with a pharmacist or your doctor.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

If English is not your main language and you would like an interpreter, call TIS National on 131 450 and ask to be transferred to NURSE-ON-CALL.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2023


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