The human ear requires earwax to function properly and prevent certain ear problems. However, sometimes earwax is sometimes mistaken for dirt. It is incorrectly associated with poor hygiene and many people try to clean it out. This can cause a number of ear problems. Sometimes interfering with earwax can also cause it to become impacted and block the ear canal.
The lining of the ear canal is laden with sweat and sebaceous (skin oil) glands that is responsible for the production and secretion of a waxy substance. This substance is known as cerumen but is commonly referred to as earwax. It has a honey-colored to brown color and a bitter taste. Earwax keeps the ear canal moist, traps dust and acts as a water proof barrier when water enters the ear.
Earwax also has some antimicrobial properties and can repel insects that may enter the ear canal. Drainage of earwax occurs very gradually and is usually not noticeable. The ear is constantly producing earwax so it replaces the wax that drains out of the ear canal. If this earwax cannot drain out properly or is produced in larger than normal amounts, then it can build up in the ear.
Read more on low earwax.
Causes of Earwax Blockage
A build up of earwax can cause it to become hard and this makes it difficult to be expelled naturally. Removal of impacted earwax (cerumen) should be done by a doctor. There are several reasons why earwax may cause a blockage and become impacted. Most of the time this is due to human interference but sometimes can be a disturbance in the production or drainage of earwax.
Cleaning the Ear
Contrary to popular belief, the ear canal does not need to be cleaned. Entry of water into the ear is unavoidable, like during bathing or swimming. However, this is not usually a problem. Cleaning the ear with an object like a cottown bud, matchstick, hairpin and similar small objects is the most common cause of earwax blockage.
Small amounts of earwax may be extracted with cleaning but often it pushes earwax deeper into the ear canal. It can lead to cerumen (earwax) impaction. This unnecessary cleaning is the most common cause of earwax blockage. It pushes the wax deeper into the ear canal. In addition, cleaning can also cause injury to the ear canal and eardrum as well as increase the risk of infections.
Obstruction of the Ear Canal
Physical obstructions in the ear canal may also lead to earwax accumulation and impaction. This is more likely to occur in people who use hearing aids and earplugs. Prolonged use of these devices prevents the earwax from draining naturally. However, short term use should not pose any significant problem.
A foreign body in the ear could also cause an obstructions and earwax impaction. Earphones are less likely to cause an earwax blockage but it is possible among people who use these devices for prolonged periods.
Excessive earwax production with no ear disease can also result in an earwax blockage. This may occur naturally in some people for no clearly identifiable reason. Environmental conditions could sometimes influence earwax production, as well as certain ear conditions. It is important to note that excessive earwax is not a reflection of personal hygiene.
Symptoms of Earwax Blockage
A minor earwax blockage may not cause any signs or symptoms. However, as the earwax accumulates and becomes impacted, signs and symptoms may become apparent. This may be due to disrupting the sense of hearing and irritating or injuring the ear canal. Some of the signs and symptoms of earwax blockage that may occur includes:
- Diminished hearing with or without tinnitus (ringing in ears).
- Ear discomfort and mild ear pain.
- Sensation of fullness in the ear.
These signs and symptoms are non-specific for earwax blockage. This means that it can occur in a host of other ear conditions. Therefore it is important that the ears are assessed by a doctor in order to differentiate earwax blockage from other ear problems that may present with similar signs and symptoms.
Treatment for Earwax Blockage
The treatment for earwax blockage focuses on removing the impacted earwax. This may seem like a simple treatment that could be done at home. However, it should be done by a medical doctor. Attempting to remove that impacted earawx could worsen the condition.Self-treatment may push the earwax deeper in the ear canal.
It could also cause injury and infection of the ear canal or damage the eardrum. Although self-treatment is not advised, a few drops of baby oil, mineral oil or glycerin placed into the ear canal can help to soften wax and allow it to drain naturally. This may only be useful in milder cases. Do not attempt to use any object to remove the earwax thereafter.
- Earwax-softening agents may be prescribed and should be used as directed. These agents such as carbamide peroxide can irritate the ear canal and eardrum if not used properly. If the earwax does not drain out naturally then one of the physical removal methods may be needed.
- Physical removal of the earwax plug may involve flushing the ear with warm water through a syringe. Suctioning the ear may also be useful. A device known as a curet can be used to physically remove the earwax. All of these procedures should be done by a doctor.
Pus, blood or other discharges may be a sign of an ear injury infection and requires other treatments such as antibiotics. Never try to clean out these discharges as it can cause complications which may worsen symptoms and lead to more serious outcomes.
Do ear candles work?
An alternative treatment that is sometimes used involves ear candles. These hollow candles are inserted in the ear and lit at one end to supposedly create a vacuum. The theory behind this practice is that the vacuum will draw out the earwax. However, there is no scientific evidence to justify the use of ear candles. Studies on this practice has not shown any effective removal of the earwax.