As audiologists, we often get asked “How do I clean my ears?” by patients. Many people do not know that your ear typically cleans itself! Earwax, or cerumen, is a self-cleaning agent meant to protect and lubricate your ear canal. Glands in your ear canal produce this substance to trap dirt and dust particles so they do not make their way to your eardrum. The earwax naturally migrates out of your ear with jaw movements, such as chewing or talking. Different factors can impact how much earwax a person produces (e.g. genetics, medications).
When a cerumen impaction occurs, it is typically due to the patient using Q-tips or other objects to clean their ears. But, in reality this typically just inhibits the natural migration of the earwax and pushes it down deeper into the ear canal! Symptoms of a cerumen impaction include decreased hearing, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), itchiness, or a plugged feeling in the ears.
There are safe methods to help remove the earwax from your ears, if there is a buildup. Patients can place a few drops of mineral oil, a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water, or commercial wax softeners into the ear over the course of a few days. If a deep impaction has occurred, softening the wax alone will most likely not remove all of the wax and the individual will need to have the cerumen extracted. Licensed medical providers have the ability to manually remove earwax. Different methods of extraction include suction, water irrigation, or curette removal. The method used varies depending on the condition of their ear and the amount of wax. Consult a physician if you believe that you have a cerumen impaction.