If you try to fix an earwax blockage by digging around in your ear with a cotton swab, we understand the urge. But also, you should stop.
According to ear doctors, it’s really not safe to stick cotton swabs (or anything smaller than an elbow) into those precious auditory passageways of yours. Not only could you scratch your delicate ear canal or eardrum, you risk pushing earwax farther into your ear, which could lead to even more wax buildup.
“You really don’t want to do this,” Brad DeSilva, M.D., an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor) at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF.
But earwax blockages can happen to the best of us, so…what are you supposed to do if you have one? Ear doctors have a few other treatment options for you. Hear them out.
You don’t usually need to remove earwax, but sometimes it can build up and create a blockage.
Earwax is a wondrous multi-tasking substance that serves two main purposes: stopping dust, germs, and small objects from damaging your ear, and protecting the skin in your ear canal from irritation if water gets in there, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Also known as cerumen, earwax is made from ceruminous glands that secrete wax and sebaceous glands that pump out oil.
In most cases, your earwax slowly oozes or falls out of your ear. “The only reason to remove earwax is if it’s blocking your hearing or bothering you,” Nina Shapiro, M.D., otolaryngologist at UCLA Health and author of HYPE: A Doctor's Guide to Medical Myths, Exaggerated Claims and Bad Advice, tells SELF.
But sometimes the wax can harden, forming a blockage that leads to symptoms like an earache, feeling of fullness in your ear, a ringing sound or noises in your ear, decreased hearing, dizziness, and even a cough, the Mayo Clinic says. Then, obviously, you’ll want to do something about it. But that something shouldn’t involve a cotton swab for the aforementioned reasons.
Safe, at-home earwax removal should not include cotton swabs or wax candles.
DIY earwax removal is sometimes possible, but using cotton swabs or wax candles are not recommended by otolaryngologists. Instead, there are a few steps for safely getting rid of a blockage.
Note of caution: You shouldn’t try this at-home method if you’re experiencing ear pain or fluid drainage, recently had ear surgery, or if you were diagnosed with a hole in your eardrum, according to the Mayo Clinic.
But if your ear just generally feels stuffed up and you suspect an earwax blockage is the reason, you can try taking matters into your own hands. That usually means following three steps, according to the Mayo Clinic:
1. Try to soften the earwax. Take a clean eyedropper filled with baby oil, mineral oil, glycerin, or hydrogen peroxide, and put a few drops into your ear canal. You can lie down with the affected ear up before you put the drops in and hang out for a few minutes to make sure the liquid really gets in there before sitting up, Dr. DeSilva says.
2. Follow that up with a warm water rinse. It will probably take a day or two for the wax to soften. Have patience, dear reader. This is a necessary step for any wax-removal magic to happen.
After that time has passed, take a rubber-bulb syringe (you should be able to buy one online or at your local drugstore), fill it with warm water, and gently squirt the water into your ear canal. Be sure to tilt your head and pull your outer ear up and back to straighten your ear canal so it’s easier for the water to seep in. Then tilt your head to the side to allow the water to run out.
3. Dry the area. When the water has drained out, gently dry your outer ear with a towel or blow dryer. (If you go the dryer route, the U.S. National Library of Medicine recommends using it on low so you don’t blast your ear with hot air.)
Depending on how stubborn your earwax blockage is, you might have to repeat this a few times to get full relief.
If at-home methods don’t help your earwax blockage, consult a doctor.
Let’s say you’ve tried to safely clean your ears on your own and you’re still feeling plugged up. In that case, it’s time to go to either your primary care doctor or an ear, nose, and throat specialist.
Your doctor will be able to determine if an earwax blockage is causing your issue by looking in your ear with an instrument called an otoscope, which lights and magnifies your inner ear, the Mayo Clinic says. They can then use a small, curved instrument called a curet to scoop out the wax, use suction to suck it out, or use water-based methods to flush out your ear.
If you get frequent earwax blockages, your doctor may recommend that you use earwax removal kits from your local pharmacy or over-the-counter chemical earwax-removal medications, the Mayo Clinic says. You should only take these steps after getting the OK from your doctor so you know the proper protocol to avoid accidentally irritating your ear canal or eardrum.
Overall, don’t worry that having an earwax blockage means anything is seriously wrong with your ears. “Earwax is normal,” Dr. DeSilva says. “It’s OK and good to have some wax in your ear canal.”