Cerumen (Earwax)

What is cerumen?

Cerumen or earwax is a self-cleaning agent produced in the outer one third of the ear canal with protective, lubricating and antibacterial properties.  It is actually a water-soluble mixture of secretions, including hair and dead skin.

Should cerumen be removed?

Ideally the ear canal should never have to be cleaned since it is self-cleaning.  There is a slow migration of cerumen and skin cells from the eardrum to the opening of the ear canal.  Unfortunately, many people believe that earwax  should be removed for hygiene reasons and this is not the case.  In fact, the absence of cerumen may result in dry, itchy ears.  Attempting to remove earwax can result in damage to the ear, including trauma, earwax impaction and a temporary hearing impairment.

Some people, due to an over production of cerumen, improper “Q-tip” usage, hearing aid use and other factors, may require the cerumen to be removed by a physician, an audiologist or a hearing instrument specialist.  Softening the earwax with olive, baby or mineral oil using an eyedropper, providing that the eardrum is intact (no hole in the eardrum), is also effective.  Cotton swabs or “Q-tips” can further impact the earwax and damage the ear canal and should be avoided.

What earwax removal methods are available?

The consistency of the earwax is acutally what determines which removal method is used.  Manual removal methods use specialized tools with loops that are affixed to a penlight and/or a tiny vacuum.  Irrigation or ear syringing can be performed by a nurse or physician.  Extremely impacted earwax or hardened earwax might require treatments using a softening solution.

Caution is advised if you have diabetes, a perforated eardrum (hole in the eardrum), a ventilation tube in the eardrum or have a weakened immune system.

Kristina Hill and Katie Troyan are certified in cerumen management.

Symptoms of cerumen impaction?

  • earache, fullness in the ear, or a sensation that the ear is plugged
  • partial hearing loss, which may be progressive
  • tinnitus – ringing or other noise in the ear that is not in the environment
  • itchiness, odour or discharge from the ear canal
  • frequent coughing

Are ear candles an option for removing earwax buildup?

Ear candling is not a safe or effective way to remove earwax and may result in serious injury.  See what Health Canada has to say about ear candling at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/alt_formats/pacrb-dgapcr/pdf/iyh-vsv/med/ear-oreille-eng.pdf