Definition & Overview
Earwax, also called cerumen in medical terms, is more than just dirt in the ears. In fact, it is part of the body's defense mechanism. The ears produce earwax to prevent foreign substances from entering the ear and damaging or infecting the eardrum. Earwax also has antibacterial properties that protect the ear from bacteria and fungi.
Old earwax hardens and is normally pushed out of the ear canal through jaw movements and skin changes that take place inside the ear. However, in some cases, the body fails to release hardened earwax or the patient accidentally push it further inside the canal while cleaning the ears, resulting in a blockage of the canal.
Many people consider earwax as unhygienic, which is why they clean the ears on a regular basis using cotton buds or other materials. Doing so is ill-advised because the inner ears have a cleaning mechanism. Disturbing this mechanism not only results in a blocked ear canal, but the object may inadvertently damage the eardrums causing serious hearing problems.
If, for any reason, earwax hardens and blocks the ear canal, you should visit a doctor to undergo an earwax removal procedure instead of trying to clear the canal on your own and risk damaging the eardrums.
Who should undergo and expected results
Hardened earwax that has caused a blockage resulting in reduced hearing abilities can be safely removed by an ENT specialist, also called an otolaryngologist. However, some general practitioners have received training in such procedure and can also help.
An earwax removal can be performed in two ways: through medications that melt the earwax or through an ear irrigation procedure that uses water, saline, or eardrops. DIY kits are also available, which enable you to do the procedure yourself in the comfort of your own home.
Removing earwax should only be done using the above-mentioned procedures. Other well-known procedures, such as candling or inserting a cotton swab inside the ear are dangerous and can result in serious damage.
You should undergo an earwax removal procedure if you feel that your ears are plugged, experience hearing loss and ringing in the ears, or notice a foul discharge from your ears. It's best to consult an ENT specialist rather than doing the procedure at home. The specialist will be able to diagnose your condition and inform you if you have more serious ear problems.
How the procedure works
Hardened earwax can be softened using eardrops, water, or hydrogen peroxide. A syringe can also be used to deliver the liquid inside the ear. However, it's important to note that this procedure should only be performed if there is no perforation in the eardrum.
If there is a hole in the eardrum, eardrops and other chemicals can cause an infection. If this happens, the condition will not only be painful, but can also result in permanent hearing disabilities.
Possible risks and complications
Ear syringing or earwax removal procedures recommended or performed by an ENT specialist are generally safe. Other procedures, such as ear candling or inserting pointed objects inside the ear canal should be avoided as these can cause serious damage.
If you have never undergone an earwax removal procedure, you should consult a specialist when having it performed for the first time to ensure there are no existing problems with your ears that can result in complications, such as an infection.
If your ears are healthy and the only problem is the buildup of earwax, you can opt for DIY kits for future ear cleaning. It also wouldn't hurt if you consult your doctor every six months or so to make sure that your ears are in perfect condition.
- American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery