Do You Have Earwax Buildup? Read These Do’s and Don’ts
You’ve all heard it before: Never put anything, especially a cotton swab, in your ears. Yet people still do it sometimes in an effort to keep their ears clean. Experts say that cotton swabs in the ears can cause disastrous results. Learn more.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Experts say that cotton swabs in the ears can cause disastrous results. “I had a patient who actually knocked her hearing bones out of place with a cotton swab. As a result, she lost significant hearing and needed two surgeries to rebuild those bones,” says neurotologist Erika Woodson, MD, FACS.
“It’s only the opening of the ear canal that makes the wax. Therefore, wax is likely to fall out on its own. We shouldn’t stick anything in our ears because it’s likely to push the wax in further,” Dr. Woodson says.
So what’s the safe way to clean your ears when you feel like there is wax build-up, or what doctors call cerumen impaction? First, realize that your ears are self-cleaning. Dr. Woodson says that for most of us, ear wax is typically soft and should not need removal.
It also helps to realize that wax itself has a purpose. “Everyone has ear wax, and you want some wax. It has anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties while also helping waterproof the ear canal,” Dr. Woodson says.
She says every once in a while, someone may have enough wax buildup to prompt a doctor’s appointment, but it’s not often.
If you do have excessive wax build-up, here are some do’s and don’ts for cleaning the ears:
Do contact a primary care doctor if your ear feels plugged up, it hurts, or you can’t hear. “It’s important not to assume the problem is ear wax unless you’ve been to the doctor before for this issue,” Dr. Woodson says.
Do try over-the-counter wax softener or baby oil at home, if you know you have a tendency towards wax buildup.
Don’t use cotton swabs inside the ears.
Don’t use hydrogen peroxide. If the problem isn’t ear wax impaction (but something more serious like a hole in the eardrum or fluid behind the ear drum), you could cause further damage.
Don’t use ear candles. Studies show they do not work and can cause injury. “These are not effective and they are dangerous,” Dr. Woodson says. “I have had to do surgeries to repair ear drum injuries from ear candles.”
Don’t bother with contraptions for consumer use that claim to “vacuum” wax and dust from the ears. They don’t work, Dr. Woodson says.
She recommends a medical evaluation when there’s any pain, hearing problems or if it feels plugged up. It’s important not to assume that earwax is the cause. Fluid in the ears, ear injury or infection can cause similar symptoms.
Remember: Ear wax is normal, and is not a hygiene issue. If you are in the minority of people who do need ear wax removal, doctors have the safest ways to clear your ears compared to at-home remedies.