Ear wax, also known as cerumen, is a yellow or brown substance produced by glands located in the cells which line the outer ear. Wax has a protective function because it keeps the ear clean and free from infection by trapping any dust and dirt that enters the ear canal. It also clears the ear of old skin cells. The wax is carried down the ear canal by the tiny hairs which grow inside the ear. Eventually it works its way to the outside world taking dirt, dust and old skin cells with it.

Occasionally wax can build up inside the ear forming a plug which can begin to cause problems.

Symptoms

If the ear becomes blocked with the build-up of wax, a number of unpleasant symptoms can develop including:

  • itching
  • slight deafness
  • an uncomfortable blocked feeling
  • pain
  • ringing, whistling, buzzing or humming in the ears (tinnitus)
  • dizziness

These symptoms are often made worse if water enters the ear. This is because ear wax swells when it comes into contact with water. Symptoms may also worsen if you are out in a cold wind, if you fly in an aeroplane or if you develop a cold or hay fever.If left untreated a blocked ear can lead to severe pain (as pressure behind the blockage builds up), infection and even a perforated ear drum.

Young children may not be able to tell you that they are in pain so if you notice children rubbing or tugging their ears or crying more than usual, they may have something wrong with their ears.

Causes

Problems occur when wax is produced at a faster rate than is being carried out of the ear. Some people naturally produce more wax than others and some people are more prone to a build-up of wax due to having a narrow or angled ear canal. Hearing aids may prevent wax draining away as effectively and the use of cotton buds to 'clean' the ears can actually compact the wax making it more difficult to remove.

Prevention

Do not use cotton buds to clean your ears as you may make your problem worse.If you work in a dusty environment you could try using ear plugs to prevent dust and dirt entering the ear.

You could also try using products designed to soften ear wax on a regular basis.

Treatment

A few drops of olive oil or almond oil dropped into the ear can help to soften ear wax enabling it to drain away. There are also many products available from your pharmacy which have a similar effect. Some are oil based and some contain ingredients such as sodium bicarbonate or hydrogen peroxide which produce bubbles which help to break up the wax. You must not use these products if you have been told you have a perforated ear drum or if you are suffering sharp or intense pain. If you have a nut allergy please note that some ear drops contain peanut oil (arachis oil) or almond oil.If ear drops fail to dislodge the wax your doctor may suggest that you have your ears syringed. This can be carried out by the nurse at your doctor's surgery and involves lukewarm water being squirted into your ear canal.If all other treatments fail you may need to see an ear, nose and throat specialist at the hospital who may try to hook out the wax plug using a small device known as an ear curette. Alternately, a suction technique may be used.

Simple pain relief treatments containing paracetamol, aspirin or ibuprofen can help to ease pain.

When To See A Doctor

If your condition does not improve after using ear drops for three days, make an appointment to see your doctor.If you develop sharp or intense pain you must also see your doctor.

Children under the age of 12 complaining of earache should be seen by a doctor. Similarly, if you have an infant who is rubbing or tugging their ears or crying more than usual, they should also see a doctor.

Additional Information

Leaflets about otitis media (ear infection), colds, flu, hay fever and how to use ear drops are also available from your pharmacy.