To Remove Ear Wax or Not? What Patients Must Understand

To Remove Ear Wax or Not_ What Patients Must Understand.png   As a medical professional, there is that dreaded moment in any social situation. It’s the one where they find out you are a professional nurse, medic, doctor, med-tech or administrator...

“You are? Oh, I wonder if you could check out this pain I’ve been having in my shoulder…”

You may as well set up a queue at that point. Party’s over.

Then there are the debates, Twitter or otherwise.  You can’t stay out of them. People pull you in… “Sarah, you’re a neurologist… should people remove ear wax?”

Party’s over.

The general advice is that cerumen, otherwise known as ear wax, should be left to do its job. It’s a coating around the edge of the ear canal, designed to protect your hearing from the crud of life.

That said, there are exceptions where NOT removing the wax could be unwise.

Note: Consult a physician before digging in your ears. We’ve done our level best to load this blog with the best advice available, but it IS NOT intended as health advice. It’s meant as entertainment. What could more entertaining than earwax?


What may serve as an exception…


While most people will never face an ear wax situation that mandates immediate action, there are a couple of situations which may require some attention. Ideally, this is what you should do.

  • Step one, call the doctor.
  • Step two, go to the doctor.
  • Step three, do whatever the doctor says.
A doctor has tools you won't likely have in the home, like the Welch Allyn ear wash system. These types of tools you should only own if your doctor has advised you to purchase them, and instructed you on proper usage.

These are the two cases where you may decide you need to take action.

1. When a child’s ear is the subject — While staying calm in the face of personal calamity may be easy-breezy, when it comes to our own children, us normal folks freak the heck out. Unless you have no choice, like you can’t get professional help, don’t try to handle this yourself. If you make the situation worse, you’ll never forgive yourself for ruining your child’s career as the foremost concert pianist in the world. If you have absolutely no other options, skip ahead to some of the solutions in the next subsection. That said, we strongly recommend you do not attempt to rectify the blockage by yourself. 2. When someone's suffering total Blockage — When cerumen builds up to the point that it completely blocks the ear canal, the sufferer might experience hearing challenges or even pain. The wax can harden, making an impossible clog between the world outside and the eardrum. Step one, don’t panic. We’ll come back to why digging is the worst idea, but for now, just don’t. Step two, go to a clinic. Get professional help.  

A few potential solutions and at least one really bad idea

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There comes a time when waiting for any longer is not possible. If the message has not boxed you in the ears yet, a professional is the best route to go.

But, for argument's sake, let’s say it’s 3:00 in the morning and you’re stranded in the middle of the outback with nobody to help you.

If you had the right tools and know-how, meaning a doctor had once shown you how to do one of these, you might consider one of the following solutions.

Digging — Sorry, this is the one really bad idea. Whether we’re talking the softest cotton swab on Earth or the wrong end of a spoon, don’t. ever. dig. There is one absolutely good reason why digging is never a good idea. You will almost inevitably push all or some of the wax deeper into your ear. The smallest contaminant deep in your ear canal could do permanent, irreparable damage to your hearing. What other reason would you need to never do this? What percentage of your hearing are you prepared to lose? Still, despite the warnings, some will dig. Some also enjoy marmite by the spoonful. Medication If you go to your doctors you may receive a prescription for medication to help reduce your wax. Your doctor may prescribe carbamide peroxide, drops which will help remove the wax, but follow your doctor and the medication directs you. Overuse can damage your ear skin and canal. Ear Candling — This is a popular method of removing earwax in the medical underground of alternative medicine. Beware anyone who suggests you turn your or your child’s head into a giant candle. The idea is that one can draw out the wax my using it with a wick and fire, burning the wick like a candle. What’s more likely to happen is a burn at the edge of the ear. Invariably, any self-ascribed professional you ask about this method will tell you why their methodology is different than the rest but proceed at your own risk. Again, why do this when there are reliable medically sound methods for removal? Irrigating — This is potentially one of the methods your physician may use to clean out your excess wax, an ear irrigations system like the Project 101 ear irrigation system. Irrigation may mean the use of warm water or oil to loosen up the wax. It may also mandate the use of a curette to pull the wax out. This type of removal, using a curet, should only be performed by a doctor. With direction from a doctor, some people may irrigate their own ears with a special kit, but you should not try to look up irrigation methods online or in a book to try in the wild.  
Check out Medshop's professional ear washing solutions.

What to do when it’s doctor time


If you’re suffering pain or hearing loss, hello, it’s time to get thee to the doctor. Most general practitioners can help you with this situation. There’s no need to see the ENT for assistance.

Hands off — Did I mention “don’t dig?” Yeah, that will be easier to do if you keep reaching for your ears. If you have to, get someone to tie your hands together until you can get to the doctor’s office. On second thought, don’t do that. What if there’s a fire? In any event, you cannot make the situation better by messing with your ears, even if you don’t dig inside. Any pressure on the outside could also push was deeper in your canal.  Don’t drive — Unless you have no other option, if your ear is really clogged, your normal spectrum of hearing has been impaired. While the world is full of capable drivers with only one ear, they’ve adapted to this way of living over a long period of time. You may find the loss of hearing in one ear disorienting. It may even make you suffer motion sickness. If you have a minute, read this story of a patient who gave herself motion sickness by shoving cotton swabs in her ear. Go today — Ear wax pain or discomfort requires immediate attention. Booking a future appointment for something like an MRI makes sense when there’s no desperate consequences potential from standing in line. Ear wax causing pain or hearing loss could be serious, more than painful in the present moment. Don’t wait for your normal doctor to have an opening. Go to the nearest doctor who can see you, ER or otherwise. This is an easy problem to solve for someone with a medical doctorate. If you wait for your family doctor, you may regret it.

Okay, so let's agree... As a daily activity, removing earwax isn’t the same as flossing your teeth.

In fact, if all the effort put into removing earwax in the home were channelled into the flossing of teeth, dentists and general practitioners of the world would have less work to do.

We could all focus on solving real problems like why does everyone at the social event always have a pain in their shoulder?


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