Ear wax sounds funny, but impacted ear wax is a serious problem. In fact, ear wax complaints send millions of patients to the medical office each year for professional ear cleaning. Millions more head to the drug store seeking over-the-counter remedies. Other individuals resort to dangerous home remedies such as using sharp objects, cotton swabs, and ear candling to remove annoying ear wax at home, often with disastrous results.
But ear wax isn’t evil. It actually provides a number of benefits to the ear. It helps clean and lubricate the ear canal. It helps trap and keep foreign substances from reaching the inner ear. The acidity of ear wax even helps prevent ear infections by killing bacteria.
So ear wax is good—in the right amounts. But like most things in life, too much of a good thing can be bad for you. The same applies to ear wax. When ear wax builds up, the impaction can cause miserable symptoms, including pain, pressure, dizziness, and itching. But these symptoms are just the start.
As Baby Boomers enter middle age, and as a result of increased exposure to noise pollution, hearing aid usage has increased. Hearing aid usage blocks the natural flow of ear wax through the ear canal, leading to ear wax impaction. Unfortunately, ear wax is the number one cause of hearing aid failure. So, it is important for hearing aid wearers to keep their ears clean to extend the life of their hearing aids.
Finally, in addition to the annoying symptoms already mentioned, ear wax impaction is a major cause of temporary hearing loss. When wax fills the ears, sound waves can’t get in; this limits the ability to hear. Sometimes, the loss of hearing due to ear wax impaction comes on gradually. Other times, the onset is sudden. Now, not all hearing loss is caused by ear wax. When ear wax is not the problem, only a visit to a hearing specialist can determine the cause of hearing loss.
What should you do if you have impacted ear wax?
- DO visit your medical professional if you suspect you have more than wax, such as an infection or injury to your ear drum. [Severe pain, fever, or the presence of blood or pus can be signs of infection or rupture.]
- But, if you are SURE your symptoms are caused by built up ear wax and you do NOT have ear tubes in place, you can clean your ears at home using the same method professionals use as described in the next section.
- DON’T use cotton-swabs (such as Q®-Tips), or other objects, such as ear picks, to remove wax. These can be dangerous and push wax further in.
- DON’T use ear candles. Scores of internet videos have demonstrated that ear candling is not only a hoax but can lead to serious burns.
The preferred method of ear cleaning
According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, irrigation is the preferred method to safely clean ears, using 3 simple steps:
- Pre-soften ear wax prior to cleaning
- Irrigate ears with very warm water
- Re-acidify the ear to prevent infection after cleaning
Individuals can easily perform these three steps at home with the right tools.
For irrigation, never use water pic devices, designed for cleaning teeth, to clean ears. The pressure from such devices may damage the ear. An “ear washer,” [i.e. a device specifically designed for irrigating ears] is the right tool to use when cleaning ears. The ear washer should be filled with very warm water [not hot or cold water]. Using hot water can scald the ear. Using water that is cooler than body temperature can cause dizziness. Think of Goldilocks and always use water that is just right—very warm water! Now, flush the ears with the ear washer until the ear is clean. Sometimes, with stubborn ear wax, this can take repeated tries.
Finally, it is important to re-acidify the ear canal after cleaning. Remember, the acidic property of ear wax helps prevent ear infections. Cleaning out ear wax reduces the acidity in the ear canal. So after washing, it is important to rinse with a solution that approximates the pH of the ear.
Our home-use product, the Wax-Rx pH Conditioned Ear Wash System, contains everything needed for each of these 3 steps: pre-treatment wax softening drops; an easy to use, specially designed ear washer; and a post-wash pH conditioned rinse.
For softening the wax, specially formulated wax removal aid drops or olive or mineral oil can be used several minutes before cleaning. Studies show pre-softening ear wax before irrigation improves the ease and effectiveness of the treatment.
Preventing wax impaction
Of course, it’s great to be able to clear ear wax impaction when it occurs, but, if you find you experience chronic ear wax build up, you can prevent impaction with a regular ear washing routine. Irrigate your ears every 6-12 weeks using the 3-step method to prevent future impaction.