Understanding earwax and when to remove it

All healthy ears produce earwax. It’s your body’s way of cleaning out your ears. This is because the skin in your ear canal can’t shed like the skin on the rest of your body. So, in order to remove dirt and dust that builds up in your ear canal, glands lining the outer part of your ear canal produce earwax. 

Earwax naturally moves out of your ear canal and flakes away. However, some people experience a build-up of earwax, which can lead to conductive hearing loss, with sounds becoming dull. 

You are more likely to experience a build-up of earwax if you are a teenager or young adult, or sweat more than average — these individuals produce more earwax than others. You may also experience a build-up of earwax if it can’t easily pass out of your ears eg if you wear earphones a lot or use hearing aids. This prevents earwax from falling out but can also push earwax further in — this also happens if you attempt to remove your earwax using cotton buds.

How to remove earwax

You should never remove earwax yourself. 

Earbuds will push your earwax further into your ear and compact it, which will make things worse. Earbuds, as well as other earwax removal tools and apps, can easily damage your ear canal, ear drum or even the delicate bones behind your ear drum. Significant force isn’t needed to cause damage — even touching your eardrum can cause it to tear. 

If earwax is impairing your ability to hear or causing ear ache, see your GP. They will examine the inside of your ear using a device called an otoscope. If you haven’t already tried using ear drops, your GP will recommend doing so for at least a week. This will soften your earwax and may be enough to help it fall out. However, if your earwax is still causing you problems, once it is softened, your GP may recommend microsuctioning

For microsuctioning, your doctor will use a microscope to look into your ear and then use a suction device, with a fine suction tip, to suck the earwax out. If hard bits of earwax are present, they may use tiny hooks or forceps to scrape it out. 

If you still have hearing problems after your earwax is removed, your doctor will perform further examinations to identify the cause of your hearing loss

Author biography

Miss Emma Stapleton is a Consultant Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon at Spire Manchester Hospital and clinical lead for the Manchester Cochlear Implant Programme at NHS Manchester Royal Infirmary. Clinically, she treats a wide range of ear conditions, including hearing loss, tinnitus, hearing implants (including cochlear implants, middle ear implants and bone conduction implants), stapedectomy, eardrum repair and cholesteatoma surgery.

We hope you've found this article useful, however, it cannot be a substitute for a consultation with a specialist

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.

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