Ear Wax Cerumen

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

  • Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

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When should ear wax be removed?

Under ideal circumstances, a person should never have to clean their ear canals. However, sometimes removal of ear wax is necessary. Excessive ear wax may build up in the ear canal for many of reasons including:

  • narrowing of the ear canal resulting from infections or diseases of the skin, bones, or connective tissue;
  • production of a less fluid form of cerumen (more common in older persons due to aging of the glands that produce ear wax); or
  • overproduction of cerumen in response to trauma or blockage within the ear canal.

How should ear wax be removed?

Many cases of ear wax respond to home treatments. It is possible to try using a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, or glycerin in the ear to soften the wax. Hydrogen peroxide drops can also be used. There are also over-the-counter (OTC) products available to remove ear wax, such as Debrox or Murine Ear Drops. If the ear still feels blocked after using these drops, a physician should be consulted. If the person does try OTC ear wax softeners, it is imperative to know that he or she does not have a perforated (punctured) eardrum prior to using the product. Putting ear wax softeners in the ear in the presence of a perforated eardrum may cause a middle ear infection (otitis media). Similarly, simply washing the ear in the presence of a perforation may start an infection. If a person is uncertain whether or not he or she has a perforation (hole) in the eardrum, consult a health-care professional. Some individuals may also be hypersensitive to products designed to soften ear wax. Therefore, if pain, tenderness or a local skin rash develops, the use of these drops should be discontinued.

When wax has accumulated so much that it blocks the ear canal (and interferes with hearing), a health-care professional may need to wash it out (known as lavage), remove it by suctioning, or remove it with special instruments. Alternatively, a doctor may prescribe ear drops that are designed to soften the wax (such as trolamine polypeptide oleate-ear drops [Cerumenex]).

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/2/2015

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