Can Ear Wax Cause Problems?

Continuing our video series, Dr. Jerome Hester explains “Can Ear Wax Cause Problems?”

Ear wax or cerumen is obviously part of being a human. This is a material that’s formed in the ear canal. It’s a normal occurring material, and it serves several functions. It is a moisturizer for the area, but it also is slightly acidic and helps prevent any infections in that area.

For the vast majority of us, the ear does a great job of just self-cleaning itself. The ear wax is pushed out of the canal, and really does not build up. Therefore, for most people, no real cleaning of the ear canal is necessary. In fact, cotton swabs were never meant to be used in the ear canal itself. They’re used to actually clean the outside of the ear. So for most of us, there really is no need for management, and in fact, things like Q-tips or cottons swabs can usually cause only more harm than good in that they are typically able to push any wax that is in the canal farther in and causing more plugging.

In severe cases, of course, trauma to the ear canal itself can be caused or even an occasional puncture of the ear drum with a Q-tip stuck in the ear. However, if wax does build up, it can cause problems due to the obstructive situation that occurs. It is more common that ear wax will become thicker as we all get older, therefore be more likely to cause problems. In addition, sometimes after swimming, if there is already ear wax in the ear canal, that ear wax can be softened by the water, and therefore cause more obstruction as it becomes almost like a paste. This is commonly what happens when individuals say that they have water “stuck in their ear” after swimming, since normally water has no place to get stuck in the ear canal. It usually evaporates very easily. However, if it softens the wax and causes this obstructive situation, the patient will think that water is caught in that area.

If one does have problems with ear wax, most of the over-the-counter materials are a form of peroxide with other ingredients. The idea here is that those materials are able to soften the wax and all it to be removed. This can be effective if there’s a small amount of wax. However, if there’s a large amount of wax in the ear canal, once again, this tends to simply soften the wax, turning it into a paste, and then many times it becomes almost more obstructive.

Ear washing or flushing of the ear canal can also be done with relative safety, however, it is possible, with too much force, to cause damage to the ear drum itself, and including rupture of the drum. So whether this is done at home or in a doctor’s office, great care should be taken if this is undertaken. Ear candles intermittently get some press. This is the idea of lighting a candle that then softens the wax in the ear. I believe that as an ear doctor, I can tell you that uniformly, we do not agree with this procedure as we do see damage caused by this routinely.

Finally, if one is not able to clean out the ear adequately, an ENT doctor or ear doctor can usually, very easily, clean out the ear canal using suction under a microscope. In this case, damage is highly unlikely since the ear itself and ear drum are not even touched, and this method under the microscope is able to carefully remove the wax and have you back to normal in no time.