SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Healthy ears contain wax which is produced by a special lining in the ear canal.
- Sometimes, the wax builds up and causes symptoms, including mild deafness and a sensation of fullness inside the ear.
- This condition is harmless and easily treated.
About the ear
The outer ear is the part you can see, the middle ear is separated from the outer ear by the eardrum and contains tiny bones that amplify sound waves, and the inner ear is where sound waves are translated into electrical impulses and sent to the brain.
About ear wax
Healthy ears contain wax, which is produced by a special lining in the ear canal. Wax protects the tissues, and helps prevent infection by trapping micro-organisms, dirt and other irritants.
Wax is constantly travelling towards the outer ear where it can drop out. This process may take a couple of months to complete.
The normal amount of wax produced can vary from person to person. Sometimes wax builds up in the ear and requires treatment.
Symptoms of wax build up
The symptoms of a wax build-up within the ear can include:
In most cases, blockage of the ear canal with wax is harmless.
Risk factors for ear wax blockage
Some people are more prone to ear wax blockage than others. Reasons for this include:
- a tendency to produce a lot of ear wax
- narrow ear canals
- hairy ear canals
- overzealous cleaning with fingertips or cotton buds, which pushes wax further down the canals
- working in dusty or dirty environments
- inflammatory conditions of the skin or scalp.
Diagnosis and treatment for ear wax blockage
Your doctor can diagnose ear wax blockage by looking into your ear canal with an instrument called an otoscope.
Treatment may include:
- drops to soften the ear wax and help it to fall out on its own (this may take from a few days to a few weeks)
- wax softening products that are available from your local chemist
- the use of an ear syringe by a doctor to squirt warm water into the ear canal and float out the wax plug
- withdrawal of the wax by a doctor, using a suction device
- removal of the wax by a doctor, using forceps or a special hook
- large quantities of hardened wax may need to be treated by an ear specialist.
Minimise ear wax build-up
It is not possible to reduce the amount of ear wax you produce or to widen your ear canals. However, there are ways to reduce the incidence of wax build-up, including:
- Avoid cleaning the ear canals with cotton buds or fingertips, as any object poked into the ear can compact the wax and cause damage to the ear canal.
- Use wax-softening drops or olive oil twice a week, or according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Limit ear cleaning to the outer ear only.
- Treat any associated inflammatory skin conditions.