Bees aren’t the only creatures that make wax. Your ears produce quite a bit of it. And it’s actually quite an amazing substance that cleanses and protects your ears. Most of the time, you should leave your ear wax alone and let it get on with its job. Ear wax only becomes a problem when it builds up and begins to block your ears. That’s called impacted ear wax.
Ear wax is like a gentle, antibacterial and antifungal stream that begins inside your ear canal and flows to your outer ear. When you chew or talk, your jaw movement nudges your ear wax along. Its steady journey cleanses your ears, mopping up dirt, hair and dead skin cells along the way. It also protects your ears from infection, injury and water.
You might not love ear wax but you’d miss it if it wasn’t there. You’d have itchy, uncomfortable ears that had no way of cleaning themselves.
What Causes Impacted Ear Wax?
- Something blocking your ears and making it hard for your ear wax to pass
- Producing too much ear wax, which your body can’t remove fast enough.
Some known causes of impacted ear wax include:
- Infections such as swimmer’s ear
- Eczema (those extra bits of dry, flaking skin can harden your ear wax)
- Bony growths that cause a blockage
- Chronic conditions or autoimmune diseases
- A narrow ear canal (maybe you were born like that or maybe an injury or long-term inflammation narrowed it, making it harder for ear wax to get out)
- Repeated use of objects in your ears such as hearing aids, earplugs or cotton swabs (or maybe sultanas or LEGO pieces if it’s your kid we’re talking about…)
What Are the Symptoms of Impacted Ear Wax?
You might not notice any symptoms until you have quite a bit of ear wax. And if you do, you might not realise they’re due to ear wax because they could easily be symptoms of other medical conditions too. That’s why you need your doctor or audiologist to check your ears.
Ear wax blockage symptoms include:
- Hearing loss
- Ears that itch, ring or feel oddly full
That’s right, coughing. If a blob of ear wax is pressing on your vagus nerve that supplies the outer ear, it can make you cough.
Your GP or Ear Health Nurse will determine if you have impacted ear wax by looking inside your ear. Sometimes, you may be told you have impacted ear wax when you need an ear check for another reason and your doctor can’t see inside your ear properly because there’s too much wax.
Can You Remove Impacted Ear Wax at Home?
You absolutely do not remove impacted ear wax by poking around inside your ear with a cotton bud, pencil, bobby pin or anything else. Doing so risks injuring your ear canal or even puncturing your eardrum. Many people who try to dig out their ear wax actually make the problem worse by pushing it further into their ear.
There are some over-the-counter treatments for impacted ear wax removal that aim to soften the wax so it might make its own way out. However, impacted ear wax can be quite stubborn or resistant to basic irrigation or ear drops.
In 2018, the Cochrane Collaboration reviewed the evidence for ear wax removal using drops. They found that the available evidence was of low quality but concluded that ear drops may help remove excess wax. They looked at oil-based drops, water-based drops, using water alone or using salty water (saline). They found that no one type of drop was better than any other. And they also couldn’t say for sure that drops containing active ingredients were any better than using plain or salty water.
So, ear drops may not be worth the money or the effort if they’re not much better than using water. And please don’t use ear drops before your appointment at Ear Health as it can make it more difficult to clean your ears by Microsuction.
Treatments for Impacted Ear Wax at Ear Health
At Ear Health we use Microsuction to remove impacted ear wax.
It’s usually a fifteen to twenty-minute procedure where your nurse looks into your ears using a microscope or surgical loupe. Then using a small, thin tube a vacuum removes your wax and any debris from your ears. This isn’t actually very loud but can seem loud because it’s happening right in your ear canal.
It’s over fairly quickly and you’re able to talk to us during the procedure – we can stop and start as necessary to ensure you’re comfortable.