Ear Wax & Blocked Ears

The ear canal cleans itself with a waxy secretion called cerumen. Cerumen is resistant to water, sticky (to trap dust) and migrates out of the ear canal to self-clean the ear. 

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. In some cases, the wax build-up loosens and falls out by itself without the need for intervention. 

Symptoms of wax build up

The symptoms of a wax build-up within the ear can include:

  • mild deafness
  • earache
  • a sensation of fullness inside the ear
  • tinnitus (ringing in the ear).

Why do we make wax?

The skin lining the ear canal contains glands that produce cerumen. This yellow or brown substance 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 come out. Actions of the jaw, such as talking and chewing, help to move the wax out of the canal. The ear wax you see is a combination of cerumen, shed skin cells and dirt.

Why do I get so much wax?

Some people are more prone to ear wax blockage than others. Reasons for this include:

  • a tendency to produce a lot of ear wax – this may be genetic
  • 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
  • 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.

Prevention of ear wax blockage

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:

  • Use wax-softening drops or oil twice a week, or according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Avoid cleaning the ear canals with cotton buds or fingertips, as any object poked into the ear can compact the wax.
  • Limit ear cleaning to the outer ear only.
  • Treat any associated inflammatory skin conditions.

Reference; Victoria State Government Better Health Series; Ear, Nose and Throat conditions – Ear wax.