Most people have grown up using cotton swabs, also known as Q-Tips, to clean earwax out of their ears. But according to Seth Schwartz, M.D., an author of Clinical Practice Guidelines on cerumen impaction for the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS), using cotton swabs to clean out earwax can result in impaction.
6. Does Earwax Have a Purpose?
Made by the body to keep ears clean and free from bacteria, earwax is part of the body’s defense system. Earwax doesn’t come from deep inside the ear, though it might seem like it does. The glands in the outer half of the ear canal secrete wax, keeping debris and foreign microbes out. Typically, our jaw movements, like chewing and swallowing, move old earwax outwards toward the opening of the canal. Once the wax reaches the outer areas of the ear, it dries out and flakes away.
Although it might look icky, earwax — also known as cerumen— isn’t harmful. Earwax lubricates the ear and keeps it healthy. But as with many things, however, too much of a good thing can have bad consequences, like earwax impaction.
5. What Is Earwax Impaction?
Anyone can find themselves with what they might consider to be too much earwax. However, earwax production increases with age. A third of older adults have more than an ideal amount of earwax, and about two-thirds of people in nursing homes have an excessive amount of wax in their ears.
Along with age, genetic makeup is another factor when it comes to earwax. Studies show that the kind of earwax a person has, wet versus dry, depends on genetics. In particular, smelly wet earwax is primarily due to a person’s genes.
Most of the time, bathing and cleaning the outer ear is sufficient enough to get rid of excess ear wax. But whether a person is young or old, or has wet or dry earwax, earwax impaction (blockage) can still occur.
If earwax accumulates and is pushed back into the ear — usually by cotton swabs — then earwax impaction can develop. The affected ear can feel painful and full, and hearing may become impaired. Left untreated, an infection can start. Because the eardrum and ear canal area is fragile, it’s recommended that a physician remove and treat earwax impaction.
4. How to Clean Your Ears Without Impacting Your Earwax
Though globs of earwax can be unsightly and removing earwax feels satisfying, it’s essential that you clean your ears very carefully. Digging around blindly with a bobby pin, chopstick, or a good old cotton swab may be quick and convenient, but it’s also dangerous.
As stated earlier, earwax protects the ears from foreign particles and microorganisms. By removing ear wax from the ear canal, it predisposes the ear to infection. Ear canals weren’t made to have objects inserted into them, and the delicate area can easily be injured. Small abrasions from scraping in the ear canal can quickly turn into an infection.
What’s more, earwax might get pushed deeper into the ear, rather than removed. Repeated over time, layers of earwax may accumulate, making it impossible for the body to naturally push the wax out of the canal. A Q-tip’s dome-shaped end makes it particularly good at pushing earwax backward and causing an impaction.
Globs of earwax might look unsightly, but think twice before digging around with a cotton swab. Scraping or swabbing earwax might appear as if it’s removing dirt and unnecessary wax, but all it’s doing is pushing the wax deeper and, perhaps, causing injury to the area. It might be hard to fathom, but the way you “clean” your ear canal may be doing more harm than good. Rather than rely on Q-tips, it’s best to clean your ears safely by doing the following:
3. Take a Hot Shower
The heat and steam from a hot shower help to soften earwax, making it liquify and flow through the ear canal. You can wipe away the earwax with a dry washcloth, making sure to only clean the parts of your ear that are easy to reach. If you need to insert a foreign object to reach the earwax, then it’s too deep to reach.
2. Use Eardrops
If your ears feel a little full, you may use over-the-counter eardrops from the drug store. These eardrops break up and soften earwax, allowing the body to eliminate the earwax naturally.
1. When to See a Doctor
If you think you’ve pushed earwax way back into your ear canal and a hot shower or ear drops don’t help, you may want to have a physician assess your ear. If necessary, they may prescribe stronger eardrops, ear irrigation, or they may remove the wax in their office.
The best way to prevent earwax impaction is to let nature deal with your earwax. Avoid using Q-tips inside the ear canal, but feel free to gently clean the outer portion of your ears. Just remember to leave the ear canal cleaning to nature and — if necessary — a physician. Because when it comes to something as delicate and vital as your hearing, it’s best to leave the wax removal to the professionals!