Earwax build-up and removal

Earwax is naturally produced by your body to protect the inside of your ear from water and infection.

Key points

  1. Earwax is normal. Earwax not causing symptoms or blocking your ear canal should be left alone.
  2. Usually, earwax moves slowly from the inside to the outside of your ear, where it falls out.
  3. However, sometimes the wax builds up and forms a plug that blocks your ear. In some cases, the wax plug falls out by itself without any treatment.
  4. At other times, the build-up needs treatment. This includes drops or syringing, microsuction or manual removal by your healthcare professional.
  5. Using cotton wool buds or ear candles is not recommended.

What causes the build-up of ear wax?

Some people naturally produce a lot of wax or produce hard and dry wax that is more prone to build-up. Other factors that can increase the chance of wax build-up include:

  • having hairy or narrow ear canals 
  • being an older adult, as earwax becomes drier with age
  • bony growths in the outer part of your ear canal.

Inserting objects into your ear canal, such as cotton buds, ear plugs or hearing aids can also cause wax blockage.

What are the symptoms of earwax build-up?

The build-up of ear wax in your ear can cause:

  • discomfort, itching or pain in your ear
  • a feeling of fullness or a blocked feeling in your ear
  • problems hearing
  • ringing, humming or buzzing in your ear (tinnitus)
  • dizziness (vertigo).

How is wax build-up treated?

Many people try to clean out earwax blockage with cotton wool buds. This is not recommended as the wax is often pushed deeper inside and you risk injuring your ear canal. Also avoid ear candles as they have no proven benefit in the removal of earwax and can cause serious injury. 

Instead, use one of following treatment options:  

Ear drops

You can do this treatment yourself. You soften earwax with olive oil, baby oil or ear drops, such as Waxsol or Cerumol, which can be bought from your pharmacy. Place a few drops in your ear each day for 3 to 7 days to soften and loosen the wax so it falls out naturally. Read more about how to apply ear drops.

Syringing or ear irrigation

Warm water is squirted into your ear to weaken and dislodge the wax. The wax flows out of your ear with the water. This is usually done by a nurse or doctor.  

Microsuction/manual removal

A small device is used to suck the earwax out of your ear or alternatively a thin instrument with a small hoop at one end is used to remove the wax.  These procedures are generally only available from specialist audiology (ear) services, although some branches of Hearing NZ offer them.

Read more about treatment FAQs.

How can wax build-up be prevented?

Some people are naturally prone to wax building up in their ears and may need frequent treatment to remove it when it becomes a problem.

Regular use of olive oil drops (2 to 3 drops in each ear once per week) may reduce the build-up of wax. This can be particularly useful if you use hearing aids or ear plugs.

Read more about the do's and don'ts of ear care and earwax removal FAQs.

Learn more

The following links provide further information on earwax. Be aware that websites from other countries may contain information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.

Earwax Ear Nurse Specialist Group, NZ
Earwax build-up NHS, UK
Earwax Better Health, Australia
Earwax and care AAO-HNSF, US

References

  1. Earwax management Australian Family Physician, October 2015
  2. Schwartz SR, Magit AE, Rosenfeld RM, Ballachanda BB, Hackell JM, Krouse HJ et al. Clinical practice guideline (update): Earwax (cerumen impaction) Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery. 2017; 156(1S):S1–S29.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team . Reviewed By: Dr Mathew Van Rij, GP, Lower Hutt Last reviewed: 09 Dec 2019