Earwax, also known as cerumen, is a waxy substance produced in the ear canal. It is made up of dead skin cells, sebum (an oily substance produced by the skin glands), and dust particles. It protects the ear from dust, debris, and foreign particles, as well as to lubricate and clean the ear.
While the ear canals are self-cleaning, there are instances where cerumen or other foreign matter get lodged inside the ear canal causing issues such as earache, decreased hearing or hearing loss, ringing in the ears, and dizziness.
Symptoms of cerumen impaction can include:
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Cerumen impaction is usually caused by the following:
Overproduction. Some people naturally produce more earwax than others, making them more prone to blockages.
Inadequate or incorrect removal. When you insert objects like cotton swabs, bobby pins, or earplugs into the ear canal, it can push earwax deeper and lead to blockages. Earwax should not be removed by inserting objects into the ear canal; this can damage the delicate structures of the ear.
Ear canal shape. Some individuals have narrower or more convoluted ear canals, making it easier for earwax to become impacted.
Aging. As people age, earwax tends to become drier and less mobile, increasing the likelihood of blockages.
Treatment options for earwax blockage may include:
Earwax softeners. Over-the-counter earwax softening drops or mineral oil can be used to help soften the impacted earwax, making it easier to remove.
Ear irrigation. A healthcare provider may use a syringe or specialized equipment to gently flush the ear with warm water to remove the earwax.
Manual removal. In some cases, a healthcare provider may use special instruments, such as a curette or suction device, to manually remove the impacted earwax.
Microsuction. An ENT specialist may use a microscope and a specialized suction device to safely and effectively remove the earwax.
Preventing earwax blockages is possible by avoiding the use of objects like cotton swabs in the ear canal and seeking medical attention if you experience symptoms of blockage. Additionally, regular ear hygiene and cleaning by a healthcare professional can help prevent excessive earwax buildup. If you are prone to frequent earwax blockages, your healthcare provider may recommend periodic ear cleaning as a preventive measure.
If you suspect you have an earwax blockage, it's essential to seek medical attention rather than attempting to remove it yourself, as improper removal methods can damage the ear canal or eardrum. A healthcare provider or an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist can diagnose and treat earwax blockage.