Earwax, also called cerumen, is a yellowish to brown waxy substance naturally produced in the ear canal. Earwax acts as a lubricant for the skin of the ear as well as protect bacteria, water, insects, other microorganisms, and foreign particles from entering the ear. As far as cleaning goes, you should know that the ear cleans itself using the same earwax.
If there is no earwax or not enough earwax in the ear for a period of time, the ear canal can become irritated, inflamed or infected. On the other hand, when too much wax builds up in the ear it can cause a blockage. Cleaning the ears can also push wax deeper into the ear which can result in other complications.
In most cases, there is no need to clean the ear canal. Cleaning should be restricted to the outer areas of the ear canal. Routine cleaning may be done about once or twice a week in cases of a mild wax buildup. Cleaning or over cleaning the ear may cause obstruction of the ear canal. Therefore, removal of wax should only be done if the ear’s self-cleaning mechanism fails. It should be done cautiously to avoid damaging the fragile eardrum.
Unnecessarily probing the ear with cotton swabs or other foreign objects, such as a paper clip or hair clip, pushes the wax deeper into the ear canal. An excess accumulation of wax can obstruct the ear canal and cause a condition called cerumen impaction. Young children and people who wear earplugs and hearing aids are at a higher risk of cerumen impaction.
Cerumen impaction can occur in both ears. In this case, trying to get rid of the wax built up can cause further problems. Instead, speak with your doctor especially if you notice the following signs or symptoms:
Your doctor will examine your ear canal with a special instrument and then remove the earwax using one or a combination of the following methods. The ear may be pre-treated with a topical preparation such as saline, hydrogen peroxide, or olive or mineral oil.
It is recommended that the ears be cleaned in rare cases, such as when it is overproducing wax but presents none of the symptoms of cerumen impaction. Cleaning should, however, be done with great care to avoid damaging the eardrum or causing hearing loss. The following tips may be used to carefully clean the ears when there is a mild wax buildup:
Cleaning the ear in any manner that is regarded as unsafe can cause irritation, blockage, infection or damage. The following methods should not be used to clean the ears:
Cotton Swabs: A cotton swab is commonly used to clean the ear. What this does, however, is push the wax deeper into the ear canal causing a blockage (impaction). An obstructed ear canal is one of the main reasons for partial hearing loss. Cotton swabs are firm and can also easily damage the eardrum. The cotton head may even pop off and get lost in the ear canal.
Foreign Objects: Clips, pins, keys, and/or sharp pointy instruments should never be used to clean the ears. These objects can damage the skin of the ear as well as perforate (make a hole) in the eardrum. A damaged eardrum can lead to infection or hearing loss.
Ear Candles: This is one of the most unsafe and ineffective ways of cleaning the ears. Candling is a method used for drawing out earwax by inserting an ear candle into the ear canal then lighting the exposed end. There is a high risk of burns or perforation of the eardrum using this method. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve of this extremely unsafe wax removal method.
Syringing: Once done correctly, an over-the-counter kit can flush wax out of the ear using a syringe. But this risky method should be avoided since water can lodge in the ear and cause external otitis or “swimmer’s ear.” Inflammation and infection of the outer ear are common symptoms of swimmer’s ear.
In rare cases, excessive wax buildup may require you to visit your doctor since it is not recommended to try and remove the wax on your own. Other conditions that require medical attention are:
You may need to do regular follow-up visits if you have trouble with consistent wax buildup. Your doctor may recommend safe and effective ways to clean your ears at home. These methods should be used sparingly because removing too much earwax can cause the ear canal to dry out, or become itchy, irritated, inflamed or infected.
There is no known way to prevent wax buildup. The production of wax is a natural function of the ear as a defense mechanism. Having regular check-ups with your doctor may help reduce excess wax accumulation. Resisting the need to regularly clean or overclean the ears and avoiding the use of cotton swabs, foreign objects or unsafe methods, such as candling, can also prevent overproduction of earwax.
So, how often should you clean your ears? Once the ear’s self-cleaning mechanism is functioning properly, you may never really have a reason to remove wax from your ear canal. Regularly cleaning the skin outside of the ear canal is safe. However, you may clean them once or twice a week to clear mild wax buildup, unless otherwise advised by your doctor. This should be done using a safe cleaning method. Remember, under normal circumstances you should not clean your ears. The less you clean your ears the less likely you will experience wax buildup.